Sen. Charles Schumer talks with one of his staff members during a markup session for the immigration reform legislation before the Senate Judiciary Committee, May 20, 2013.
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antecedent / power

Secrecy in the Senate

To the framers, working in secret was meant to deliver enlightened legislation.
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping tax reform bill just before 2 a.m. on a Saturday, mere hours after releasing the full text of the nearly 500-page piece of legislation.

Republicans were immediately lambasted for voting on it “under cover of darkness,” as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer put it. The bill — polling at 29 percent according to Gallup — is unpopular, something senators were undoubtedly aware of when deciding how, and when, to vote.

Legislators have recently elicited a steady stream of suspicion for working secretively to advance unpopular policies. In fact, the vote on the tax bill followed the playbook Democrats used in 2009, much to the vocal dismay of Republicans, when the Senate passed its health-care bill at 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve.

Withholding drafts of bills from the public, cutting floor debate short and voting late at night or early in the morning are seen today as procedural maneuvers that our elected officials use to subvert the democratic process.

And yet, working in secret, or “under cover of darkness,” is a tactic as old as the republic itself.

So too are debates over such procedures. At their core, such controversies reflect disagreements over the very nature of the Senate as a representative institution and, deeper still, what it actually means for our government to be representative.

Concerns about secrecy were present in debates over legislative procedures from the beginning.
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