On Dec. 21, John McCain went to the Senate floor to address his colleagues about the end of a months’ long standoff with the White House over what the law should say about proper interrogation techniques for suspected terrorists in U.S. custody. Or did he?
The Congressional Record, the official history of the Congress, displays a brief statement from McCain about a pending compromise on a defense spending bill that included language barring torture of suspects held by the military.
“By establishing uniform standards for the interrogation of Department of Defense detainees, and by ensuring that the United States will not subject any individual to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, we are better able to wage and win the war on terror,” are some of the words preserved for all future generations to know what happened in the Senate on that day.
McCain’s statement immediately follows a lengthy colloquy between fellow Arizona Republican Jon Kyl and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., about another amendment to the bill that became the subject of a Supreme Court decision on whether those held at Guantanamo Bay have a right to seek civilian judicial protection.
It has been well-publicized in recent weeks that this exchange between Kyl and Graham never actually took place. The exchange was scripted beforehand in an attempt to influence the Supreme Court case, and was inserted into the Congressional Record when Kyl and Graham didn’t get an opportunity to read it aloud.
As part of the Supreme Court’s majority decision, Justice John Paul Stevens said in a footnote the Kyl-Graham colloquy couldn’t reflect the intent of Congress because it didn’t take place during actual floor debate. Kyl has taken some political heat since the decision was released for inserting a fictitious conversation.
But Kyl’s defense, along with a July 17 guest column from Graham, illustrate the real problem here — a misleading practice by senators from both parties to include comments in official record of Congress they didn’t actually deliver.
Despite what casual observers have claimed, the editors of the Congressional Record make no attempt to separate live debate from statement insertions submitted on the same day. So it’s nearly impossible to tell just by reading these pages that McCain, Kyl and Graham all submitted something in writing their peers likely didn’t see before they cast their votes. So did Democratic senators such as Carl Levin of Michigan and Hillary Clinton of New York.
There are some arguments to be made on behalf of statement insertions. Many lawmakers want to show they were deeply involved with shaping the final outcome of legislation, without the hassle of speaking on every issue that reaches the floor. Congressional leaders are able to save time and reduce some of the work load for lawmakers and their staffs.
But statement insertions that are not clearly identified become an ongoing distortion of congressional history. We shouldn’t have to rely on videotape archives from private enterprises such as C-SPAN to distinguish between what was spoken in the halls of Congress from what lawmakers wanted to say but didn’t, for whatever reason.
As two recognized leaders of Congress, Kyl and McCain should use the recent controversy to demand changes to restore the integrity of the Congressional Record including separate markings that label every unspoken insertion.