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The House Armed Services Committee has announced a dramatic change in the process for writing the 2012 defense authorization bill, with full text of the legislation available in advance of its subcommittee and full committee meetings that will be held over the next two weeks.
The open process, part of a change imposed by Republicans when they took control of the House in January, makes for an even starker contrast with the Senate Armed Services Committee, which traditionally passes its version of the annual defense authorization bill in closed session, with senators admonished to keep all of their decisions and votes secret until the bill is completed.
Legislative text for the Senate committee version of the defense bill, and a record of votes taken in the committee, are often unavailable for days after the measure is approved.
The House Armed Services Committee has allowed the press and public to watch as it writes the annual defense bill since the mid-1980s, but text of the legislation being approved or amended has not been available immediately.
Josh Holly, the House committee's communications director, said this year the bill text will be released one day before subcommittees meet to pass their sections of the bill, and two days before the full committee holds its meeting. "We are trying to shake things up over here," Holly said.
In a memo spelling out the plans, Holly said the committee "will utilize a more transparent system" with the 2012 budget. Committee chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., "is going above and beyond new House requirements to post all bill language online the day before consideration by a full committee or one of its subcommittees," Holly said.
McKeon also has told his staff to provide plain English explanations of the provisions of the bill, Holly said.
The committee is expected to approve a 2012 budget of $582.6 billion for defense, the amount set aside by the House in its earlier 2012 budget resolution. That matches the Obama administration's request, after some adjustments for disagreements between administration and congressional budget analysts about the cost of current programs.
Subcommittees are scheduled to meet on May 4 and 5, and the full committee will meet May 11, under the current schedule. The full committee meeting, known as a markup, traditionally lasts all day and into the night, and sometimes rolls over into a second day.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has not announced when it plans to pass its version of the defense bill, but it traditionally does it in one week rather than stretching it out over two weeks. Usually, subcommittees meet on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the full committee meets on Wednesday afternoon, all day Thursday and sometimes on Friday.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate committee, has tried but failed for several years to have the defense bill approved in open session. Last year, she failed when the committee voted 20-5 to keep the session closed.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman who was among those voting to keep the bill-writing session closed, has defended the practice as allowing a more free-flowing debate that could involve classified material.
The House Armed Services Committee protects classified material while having open meetings by arranging a separate closed session, if required.