Secret Sessions of the Senate

January 29, 1929

Report Outline
Evolution of Senate Rules of Secrecy
Efforts to Abolish Secret Sessions

Late afternoon editions on Tuesday, January 22, 1929, of newspapers receiving the service of the United Press Associations published a copyrighted dispatch by Paul R. Mellon purporting to give the roll call taken in a secret session of the Senate the day before which resulted in confirmation of the nomination of Roy 0. West to be Secretary of the Interior, When the Senate began consideration of the West appointment on Friday, January 18, it voted down in executive session a motion by Senator Nye, Republican, North Dakota, that the nomination be considered in open session. And before opening its doors after the West appointment had been confirmed, the Senate defeated a motion to make public the roll call, which, on the following day, was given unofficial newspaper publication.

The Senate rules require that all proceedings in executive session shall be kept secret by senators and Senate officers, and provide drastic penalties for violation of the injunction of secrecy.

Senate Rule 38 Senate Rule 36
Clause 2. All information communicated or remarks made by a senator when dotting upon nominations concerning the character or qualifications of the person nominated, also all votes upon any nomination, shall be kept secret. (A similar rule applies to the consideration of treaties in secret sessions of the Senate.) Clause 4. Any senator or officer of the Senate who shall disclose the secret or confidential business or proceedings of the Senata shall be liable, if a senator, to suffer expulsion from the body; and if an officer, to dismissal from the service of the Senate and to punishment for contempt.

Persons admitted to the secret sessions of the Senate, in addition to the Vice-President and Senate members, are “the Secretary, the Chief Clerk, the Principal Legislative Clerk, the Executive Clerk, the Minute and Journal Clerk, the Sergeant-at-Arms, the Assistant Doorkeeper, and such other officers as the Presiding Officer shall think necessary.” The rules provide that “all such officers shall be sworn to secrecy.” The only other person, who has official knowledge of what takes place in secret sessions of the Senate, in the absence of a removal of the injunction of secrecy, is the President of the United States. In Rule 39 it is provided that: “The President of the United States shall, from time to time, be furnished with an authenticated transcript of the executive records of the Senate.” The President is not bound by the injunction of secrecy, but there is no known case in which executive proceedings of the Senate have been publicly disclosed by the President. In only one case in the history of the Senate has one of its officers been dismissed for the alleged disclosure of executive proceedings, and in this case it was later conceded that the motive for the dismissal was political and that action had been taken upon insufficient evidence.

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Dec. 21, 1955  Secrecy in Government
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Jun. 24, 1953  Access to Official Information
Feb. 25, 1948  Protection of Official Secrets
Jan. 29, 1929  Secret Sessions of the Senate
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