Closed sessions of the United States Senate

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The United States Senate has the authority for meeting in closed session, as described in the Standing Rules of the Senate.

The Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention met in secret. The Senate met in secret until 1794. The Senate’s executive sessions (such as nominations and treaties) were not opened until 1929.

Standing Senate Rules XXI, XXIX, and XXXI cover secret sessions for legislative and executive business (nominations and treaties). Rule XXIX calls for Senate consideration of treaties to be conducted in secret unless a majority votes to lift the “injunction of secrecy,” which it usually does. Rule XXXI mandates that all nominations be considered in open session unless the Senate votes to do so in secret. Rule XXI calls for the Senate to close its doors once a motion is made and seconded. The motion is not debatable, and its disposition is made behind closed doors. All of a chamber’s normal rules of debate apply during secret sessions, except during impeachment deliberations in the Senate.

For Senate impeachment proceedings, Rules XX and XXIV of the Senate Rules for Impeachment Trials govern secret deliberations. The Senate has interpreted these rules to require closed deliberations during impeachment trials.

The proceedings of a secret session are not published unless the Senate votes, during the meeting or at a later time, to release them. Then, those portions released are printed in the Congressional Record. If the Senate does not approve release of a secret session transcript, the transcript is stored in the Office of Senate Security and ultimately sent to the National Archives and Records Administration. The proceedings remain sealed until the Senate votes to remove the injunction of secrecy.

These sessions have been held 54 times since 1929. The following is a full list of those sessions, along with their dates and the reasons they were called:

Reason Date(s)
The Plame affair and the Bush administration's role in pre-Iraq War intelligence November 1, 2005
Impeachment of President Bill Clinton February 9, 10, 11, 12, 1999
Impeachment of President Bill Clinton (Procedure) January 25 & 26, 1999
Chemical Weapons Convention April 24, 1997
Most favored nation status for People's Republic of China February 25, 1992
Impeachment trial of Judge Walter Nixon November 2, 1989
Impeachment trial of Judge Alcee Hastings March 16 & October 19, 1989
INF Treaty March 29, 1988
Impeachment trial of Judge Harry Claiborne October 7 (two sessions), 8 & 9, 1986
Defense Authorization Bill, ASAT June 12, 1984
Soviet Union arms control compliance February 1, 1984
U.S. support of the Contra rebellion in Nicaragua April 26, 1983
Nominations of Richard Burt and Richard McCormack February 16, 1983
U.S./USSR defense capabilities May 4, 1982
Armed Forces personnel management February 1, 1980
Selective Service System September 21, 1979
Aircraft sales to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia May 15, 1978
Panama Canal Treaty February 21 & 22, 1978
Neutron bomb funding July 1, 1977
Defense Appropriations - Angola December 17 & 18, 1975
Intelligence Activities, alleged assassination plots involving foreign leaders November 20, 1975
Defense Appropriations June 4, 1975
Maneuverable reentry vehicle June 10, 1974
Trident submarine September 25, 1973
National Security Study May 2 (two sessions) & 4, 1972
U.S. involvement in Laos June 7, 1971
Legislative Agenda for 91st Congress December 18, 1970
Legislative Agenda for 91st Congress September 10, 1970
Defense Appropriations December 15, 1969
Defense Appropriations July 17, 1969
Defense Appropriations October 2, 1968
Committee on Intelligence Operations & Security Agency oversight July 14, 1966
Nike-Zeus production April 11, 1963
War Front reports October 7 & 8, 1943
Naval battleships and aircraft carriers June 26, 1942
Impeachment of Judge Halsted Ritter April 15 & 16, 1936
William McCracken contempt proceedings February 13 & 14, 1934
Investigation of ocean and air mail contracts involving William McCracken and others February 10, 1934
Impeachment of Judge Harold Louderback May 24, 1933

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