The Senate Intelligence Committee announced that it will now disclose which senators vote for or against measures and nominations in committee, chipping away at a panel tradition of secrecy that government watchdogs say has shielded members from public scrutiny.
Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California and ranking Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia released a statement late Thursday saying their committee will announce breakdowns of how senators voted on measures in panel markups.
“We have discussed the matter of reporting the results of committee votes on official matters such as legislation and confirmations taken in closed session and agree that such information will be made public,” Feinstein and Chambliss said.
The announcement came after questions to Feinstein and Chambliss this week about the justification behind the panel’s long-standing policy of withholding its vote tallies.
On March 5, when the Senate Intelligence Committee reported the nomination of John O. Brennan to be CIA director on a 12-3 vote, the public had no official way of knowing which panel members voted against Brennan.
In interviews, however, senators themselves revealed that Chambliss, Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim Risch, R-Idaho, accounted for the “no” votes.
According to government watchdog groups, had lawmakers chosen not to disclose how they voted, there would have been no way to determine who voted against advancing the Brennan nomination.
“When you afford lawmakers the ability to hide how they voted, no one can hold them accountable,” said Joe Newman, the communications director for the Project On Government Oversight, a government watchdog group.
The Senate Intelligence Committee had been the only committee in Congress that did not release vote positions. The House Intelligence panel, as with all House panels, is obligated under House Rule XI to release vote records within 48 hours.
While both the Senate and House Intelligence panels have nearly identical internal rules on issuing committee reports — they say the record should include a “tabulation” of the votes — the Senate Intelligence Committee’s rules actually go further, adding that the report should include a tabulation of the votes cast “by each member of the Committee.”
Government transparency advocates applauded the new policy reversal.
“As long as people are capable of reconsidering their positions and changing their practices, there is hope,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Secret ballots are for voters, not for their elected representatives.”
“Not everything they discuss is classified, and if it isn’t, it shouldn’t be kept secret from the American people,” said Angela Canterbury, the public policy director at the Project On Government Oversight.
Earlier this week, when Feinstein was questioned about the secrecy of vote tallies, she made it clear that she was open to changing the policy.
“If everybody finds out, there’s no sense in not doing it,” the California Democrat said. “I think votes should be known.”
Some Republicans on the panel, however, seemed unfazed by the secrecy concerns.
Coburn said it was “no big deal” and that most senators will happily disclose how they voted in committee. “So why do you need it?”
Aftergood said such a secret voting policy “undermines the integrity and effectiveness of the classification system” and that panel members “want to be unaccountable and disconnected to their own constituents.”
Before agreeing to change the policy Thursday, Chambliss defended the Intelligence panel’s secrecy earlier this week.
“Well, this committee operates in a classified world. We’re going to continue that,” Chambliss said Monday. Pressed on why he thought vote positions should be classified, Chambliss simply replied, “Why not?”
The answer for Intelligence panel member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., seems to be that there are “lines to be drawn” between protecting classified operations and “making sure that the laws themselves are public.”