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What if they had voted? SPJ conducts its own $87 billion voice vote on Iraq spending



For more information, contact SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Co-chairs:
Charles Davis: 573/882-5736
Joel Campbell: 801/422-2125

Remember the $87 billion investment in Iraq made after a secret pact in the United States Senate resulted in a “voice vote” attended by precisely six senators?

SPJ did.

After SPJ President Gordon “Mac” McKerral and SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee condemned the use of a pre-arranged, non-existent voice vote to approve the Administration’s $87 billion Iraq operations and reconstruction spending request, SPJ FOI Committee volunteers decided to do the Senate’s work for it.

SPJ volunteers called each member of the United States Senate, asking them to state for the record their vote on the appropriation bill. The results are posted on the SPJ Web site at http://www.spj.org/foia_senvote.asp, and represent dozens and dozens of phone calls by 15 loyal SPJ volunteers.

“The mere act of taking a voice vote on such a crucial matter of public policy diminishes the stature of the U.S. Senate,” McKerral said.

“And then to have senators refuse to state their positions -- after the fact mind you -- should make their constituents wonder who those senators really serve. SPJ is going to keep the light shining on this kind of behavior. I’m borrowing a line from Sting for those who would denigrate the process of open government -- at any level. `Every step you take, every move you make’ SPJ will be watching you.”

The “vote” – actually a representation of how the senators would have voted, had there been a vote – is noteworthy for its disclosure of the many senators who chose, after repeated attempts by SPJ callers, not to disclose how they would have voted.

“SPJ members were shocked to learn that the Senate decided to conduct a voice vote to approve such a massive investment in what has become a topic of national debate and discussion,” said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and co-chair of SPJ’s FOI Committee. “When we decided to conduct our own vote, busy journalists were eager to take the time to call senators. It’s a shame that we still have so many senators unwilling to vote for the record.”

The effort began in early November, when National Public Radio’s senior news analyst, Daniel Schorr, pointed out in his November 5 “All Things Considered” commentary that it was the biggest such emergency appropriation ever sought by a president. Any of the six senators present could have suggested the absence of a quorum and called for absent members to return for a recorded vote; none did. Schorr said that the understanding that there would be no recorded vote to provide some future embarrassment had been worked out in advance by majority and minority leaders Bill Frist and Tom Daschle.

Schorr observed:

“Now if you want to know how your senator voted, or would have voted, on the multibillion-dollar Iraq package, you'll have to ask him or her and hope that he or she will tell you.”

The six senators who voted publicly on the bill were:

* Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
* Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I.
* Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
* Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii
* Harry Reid, D-Nev.
* Ted Stevens, R-Alaska

At the Senate’s vote, Byrd shouted a loud “No!” The other five voted “yes.”

As SPJ’s letter to Vice President Cheney stated, “the embrace of secrecy in a vote of such national and international interest reflects poorly on the world’s model for democratic governance.”

No legislative body in the 50 states, from the smallest city council or school board to the state legislatures themselves, would be allowed to approve the most modest appropriation off the record, much less one of historic proportions and consequence. The United States Senate’s approach to the Iraq spending approval flies in the face of traditions we have come to regard as fundamental: that Congress serves at the mercy of the people, and that people have a civic duty to monitor the actions of their elected representatives. “

SPJ urges its members to continue to discuss this issue, and to encourage editorial writers and commentators to continue to discuss any and all future secret votes.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

SPJ FOI Alert Vol. 9; No. 5
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