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The Secret Is Out: There Was No Big Secret

Steny Hoyer worked to convince Democrats.
Steny Hoyer worked to convince Democrats. (Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images)
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By Dana Milbank
Friday, March 14, 2008

Psst. Congress has a secret.

At 6 p.m. yesterday, the House of Representatives -- the People's House, as lawmakers like to call it -- turned itself into a private club, determined to shield its deliberations from the prying eyes of the American public.

"I ask unanimous consent," said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), that "the House resolve itself into secret session."

Shhh!

"I will bring information . . . to the secret session that some members are aware of but others are not," promised a coy Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), declaring it his solemn "obligation to bring information and communicate information that is confidential and that I believe ought to be kept secret."

Hush, hush!

Rep. Dan Lundgren (R-Calif.) was giddy at the prospect. "That which is discussed in the secret session cannot be revealed even if it is of a non-classified nature," he announced on the House floor.

Speak of this to no one!

They sounded like schoolgirls whispering among themselves in class. Except they weren't schoolgirls: They were members of Congress, debating whether to grant immunity to telecom companies that cooperate in a clandestine government eavesdropping program. A vote on that program, a rewriting of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, will come today. Last night was the time for an hour-long secret debate about the spy bill -- preceded by a 90-minute public debate about whether to have the secret debate.

It was the pinnacle of a day of pointlessness on both sides of the Capitol. In the Senate, Vice President Cheney rushed to Capitol Hill to cast a tiebreaking procedural vote -- only for his side to lose in the substantive vote that followed. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, held an all-day voting marathon on provisions of a budget bill that it will proceed to ignore even before the ink is dry. Then, of course, there was Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who introduced a frivolous bill seeking $1.4 trillion to fund all of Sen. Barack Obama's presidential-campaign proposals. "Hey, Allard, you working this hard?" Obama called out before joining his colleagues in voting down the plan, 97 to 0.

The scheme to bring the House into secret session last night was every bit as frivolous, but Democratic leaders went along with it in hopes of avoiding a noisy distraction. "My view is just act like Jell-O," Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the Democratic caucus chairman, said as he entered the chamber.

Hoyer, while the one announcing the session, made it clear that it wasn't his idea. "The minority whip came to me indicating that there are things that he thought the members ought to have knowledge of that he was of the opinion could not be divulged in public debate," he explained on the House floor. "We did not want to be, nor are we, in the position of saying to the minority whip, if he has such information, that we want to preclude that from being offered."


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