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Floyd M. Riddick: Senate Parliamentarian

Floyd M. Riddick

“How it got out of the closed session, I don't know. Somebody had to tell it.”

Riddick, interviewed by Senate historian Donald Ritchie, explains a 1929 change to the Senate Rules that allowed for open executive sessions of the Senate, redefining a "closed session."

RITCHIE: When you mentioned the inaccessibility of the senators in an earlier period, it's interesting that they met in executive session quite frequently, for all nominations and treaties. They actually closed the doors.

RIDDICK: Oh yes! I think that's a part of the nature of the Senate then as contrasted to today. Sometimes I'm inclined to think that the country might even be better off if they did it again. Until 1929, unless the Senate actually voted to open up an executive session (and an executive session meant the Senate was then considering either nominations or treaties), every door was closed and supposedly everything transacted accordingly was closed. In 1929, the rule was changed and everything was done openly unless they voted to go into closed session either on executive business or legislation. I think in recent years nearly everyone would say that the committees would go into executive session. Going into executive session doesn't necessarily mean closed; it did gain the concept of being closed because executive sessions of the Senate were closed, as provided for under the rules before 1929.

RITCHIE: They kept two sets of books, an executive journal and a legislative journal; they had an executive clerk and a legislative clerk.

RIDDICK: That's correct; and when they went into executive session the executive clerk would come in and sit in the closed session. The parliamentarian, of course, stayed in both executive session and the legislative session.

RITCHIE: It seems like after World War II the practice of holding executive sessions really began to decline. I think in the whole 1960s there wasn't a single executive session. But now in the last five years they must have had five or six executive sessions. The whole thing has been revived all over again.

RIDDICK: Yes, but we don't refer to them any longer as executive sessions, we refer to them as closed sessions. Rule 35 provides for closed sessions, but executive sessions for consideration of nominations and treaties up until 1929 were closed, and that's when the rules were amended so that they would be opened unless they voted to have them closed. It was during that period, when the executive sessions were closed, that they used to refer to them as "executive sessions of committees," when they had the old mark-ups (of course, that rule has been changed now, too; since the so called "Sunshine" rule proposed by Senator [Lawton] Chiles was adopted.) Most of the mark-up sessions were all closed, and the same was true with the conference committees. But the "Sunshine" rule provides that they all have to be open, whether it's hearings or mark-up sessions, unless for one of the eight specified reasons they are permitted to vote to go into closed session—unless it's done in accordance with one of those provisions set forth in the "Sunshine" rule.

RITCHIE: One of the problems the Senate had with their executive sessions was that reporters were always finding out exactly what went on inside.

RIDDICK: That's one of the reasons they threw them open, the reason they amended the rule. The vote on a nomination in an executive session would appear in complete detail in the next day's New York Times, or somewhere.

RITCHIE: I suppose that caught someone like Preston in between, because he was trying to serve the Senate, but on the other hand he had to keep all those reporters happy.

RIDDICK: Keep them satisfied, yes. How it got out of the closed session, I don't know. Somebody had to tell it.

RITCHIE: It was a persistent problem all through the 19th and early 20th centuries. A lot of them must have been relieved that they didn't have to worry about keeping it closed after 1929.

RIDDICK: That's another case where the precedents changed greatly. What we've done was to establish that the rule providing penalties for breaking secrecy and so forth for the old executive sessions is now applicable to closed sessions. So what was done by the rulings of the Chair and precedents with regard to security matters was transferred to the closed sessions as well. They don't apply anymore to executive sessions unless they're closed. The Senate has just transferred all the secrecy and penalties provisions in the rules against senators and employees to the closed session rule.

RITCHIE: Have there been many cases, since you've been connected with the Senate, of people being held in contempt for releasing information?

RIDDICK: No, it's sort of died out. You remember the case of Senator [Mike] Gravel, when he read the confidential report from the Pentagon. There was some talk of censuring him, and I was consulted by both sides on the matter as to what could, should, and so forth, be done. But it never came to fruition; they just never acted on it.

RITCHIE: Could they, if they had wanted to, censured him, or cited him for contempt for what he had done? Would the precedents and the rules have supported that?

RIDDICK: Well, they censured Senator [Hiram] Bingham of Connecticut for a much less thing than that. He was on the Finance Committee and when they were working out one of the tariff bills, one of his employees who attended these closed sessions was feeding the information out to corporations secretly. He was censured because he had allowed this employee in there who was revealing this information. So they have censured senators for things not as bad as a senator himself divulging secret information.