WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee members are holding all of their defense budget deliberations behind closed doors this year, a move that outside watchdogs are calling upsetting and against public interest.

For the last two days, the panel's subcommittees have been marking up portions of the annual defense authorization bill in closed sessions, and will spend the rest of the week as a full committee working out the final details behind closed doors.

The committee for years has brushed off requests to make the entire process public. Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and his predecessors have said the closed sessions allow the committee to move more quickly and debate more freely.

In recent years, several of the subcommittee mark-ups have been opened up at their members' request. Last year, three of the six subcommittees held their work in public view, with no reported complications or problems from senators.  

This year, the committee added a new panel — the subcommittee on cybersecurity — and closed all seven.

In a letter to McCain and committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., sent Tuesday, members of 16 watchdog groups protested that move.

"It is extremely troubling to see this committee backslide when it comes to making the operations of the legislative branch open and transparent to the people, particularly given the substantial amount of discretionary funding under the Committee’s jurisdiction," the letter stated.

"This year SASC could consider amendments that impact to alter military pay and benefit policy, authorize base closures, provide funding for major weapon systems, impact whistleblower protections, and other provisions with significant and direct impacts on American national security. And yet, your Committee does not release the bill it will vote on in advance of markup and then closes the markup of the bill to the public."

The defense authorization bill is expected to total around $600 billion for fiscal 2018. The groups protesting the decision called it unsettling that senators will decide how to handle that amount of taxpayer dollars "almost entirely in secret."

Officials from the House Armed Services Committee hold all of their subcommittee mark-ups in public. This year, only one of their five panels took more than 20 minutes to complete. The full committee mark-up is scheduled to begin 10 a.m. on Wednesday, and is expected to last more than 12 hours.

Senate Republican leaders have come under scrutiny in recent weeks for their decisions to hold a host of legislative business outside of public view, including the decision to bring a massive health care overhaul to the Senate floor without open hearings.

The letter from the watchdog groups — which include the Project on Government Oversight, The National Taxpayers Union and the Sunlight Foundation — told senators that all congressional proceedings "should be conducted in accordance with our country’s highest principles of transparency and openness."

Senate Armed Services officials are expected to unveil their completed authorization draft to the public later this week.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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