The XXI Club

What’s the history of closed sessions in the Senate?

When we get behind closed doors …

At the request of Minority Leader Harry Reid, the Senate conducted a two-hour secret session on Tuesday. According to news reports, “the public was ordered out of the chamber, the lights were dimmed, and the doors were closed.” What’s the history of closed sessions in the Senate?

Rule XXI, which allows any senator to ask for a closed-door session, has been around since 1795. Before then, all Senate debates were held in secret. (House proceedings have always been open to the public.) During the 19th century, the press and visitors could attend general sessions of the Senate but not the “executive sessions” at which lawmakers discussed matters like nominations and treaties. Information from these meetings often leaked out to the press anyway. After one such episode in 1929, the senators resolved to make closed sessions much less common.

There have been more than 50 secret sessions since then, with more happening in the 1970s and 1980s than any other decades. (Not all were convened under Rule XXI. Executive sessions can be made secret under Rule XXIX.) In general, senators put guards at the doors when they’re discussing confidential issues relating to national security. During World War II, for example, senators held closed sessions to brief their colleagues on inspections of overseas military bases.

Many closed sessions have involved fights over military spending. In 1963, Strom Thurmond called for a secret session to argue for investments in the Nike Zeus anti-missile battery. In the 1970s, lawmakers feuded in private over how much money should be invested in Trident nuclear submarines and whether $20 million should be spent to develop a “neutron bomb.”

Most other closed sessions have dealt with treaties, military campaigns, or impeachment. Impeachment deliberations are usually held in secret, while testimony and votes are public. In 1999, the Senate held half a dozen closed sessions to discuss the impeachment of President Clinton.

Harry Reid’s two-hour closed session wasn’t particularly drawn out; many of these debates last twice as long. A 1983 session to discuss the nomination of a former New York Times reporter to be an assistant secretary of state took only 90 minutes, though, and a half-hour of that was spent searching for electronic listening devices. (Lawmakers decided against sending in bug-sniffing dogs on Tuesday.)

The secret discussions are typically recorded and then kept under seal for at least 20 years. (Congress can choose to extend the seal to 50 years.) In some cases, transcripts of the sessions are made public right away, like those of a 1975 debate over whether to release a report on CIA assassinations. Though the topic was sensitive enough to merit a closed-door debate, lawmakers ended up spending more time bickering than talking about classified information.

Bonus Explainer: Why did they dim the lights when the doors were closed on Tuesday? To save energy, not to make the meeting super-duper secret. In open sessions, the Senate chamber is illuminated with bright lights so everything looks good on C-SPAN. Since the cameras are switched off for closed sessions, they can turn off the extra lights.

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Explainer thanks Betty Koed of the U.S. Senate Historical Office.