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."
"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."
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."
Blunt felt empowered by his Big Secret; it showed how very important he is. "Because of my clearance level, I've seen the secret information and information at other levels as well," he bragged. He told his peers that once he tells them his secrets, "you can't discuss them as having been discussed as part of this secret session."
Complicating the Republicans' secret plans, and the Democrats' capitulation, were a dozen liberal members who raised a series of procedural objections.
"There are some of us here who feel that this country has drifted toward a version of a national security state," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).
Blunt pursed his lips and stroked his chin.
"Since 1825, three times in the history of this country and at no time since 1983 have we done what you are proposing," pointed out Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.). It's true: Last night's session was the fifth since 1812, in fact.
Lundgren, hobbling into the chamber with a crutch because of an injured foot, sought permission to speak. "I was here for the last three secret sessions we had," he boasted.
"I was here for the secret sessions," countered Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.). "And given the mumbo jumbo that I heard," he added, the main purpose was "to demonstrate the total uselessness of secret sessions."
Laughter filled the chamber.
But the left-wingers were unwilling to take the secrecy lightly. "It's a very, very serious matter when we do the public's business in secret," Doggett said. In the front row, Reps. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) and Diane Watson (Calif.) applauded.
Hoyer began to look tired. Blunt allowed himself a grin at his counterpart's difficulty in controlling his party. "The information we bring to the floor will not be confusing to the members but enlightening to the members, and that's why I propose that we'll move for a secret session," he explained evenly.
The howls from Democrats continued. "Scare tactics! . . . Ominous! . . . I object!"
"I've got to go back to my district and explain to my constituents why we had a secret session," protested Watson.
"I think it would be harder to explain to your constituents why we didn't have a secret session," answered Blunt.
The last of the liberals, Rep. David Scott (Ga.), got swept away by Greek mythology. "Is this a political ploy?" he demanded. "Is this a Trojan horse?"
An exasperated Hoyer sat down. Blunt finally had mercy on his counterpart, and offered some soothing words.
"I have not suggested this is at the top-secret level," he said.
The secret was out! The man who requested the secret session in the first place finally admitted he had no big secrets to divulge.
On the other hand, the 90-minute debate over the secret session did serve a purpose. It proved that the only thing worse than a secret session of the House is a session it holds in public.