Secret Sessions of the House and Senate
Secret Sessions of the House and Senate
Specialist in American Government
Government and Finance Division
“Secret,” or “closed,” sessions of the House and Senate exclude the press and the
public. They are held to discuss business such as Senate deliberations during
impeachment trials, issues of national security, and sensitive communications received
from the President, all deemed to require confidentiality and secrecy. During a secret
session, the doors of the chamber are closed. The chamber and its galleries are cleared of
all individuals except Members and those officers and employees specified in the rules
or essential to the session. Secret sessions occur infrequently. Any Member of Congress
may request one, although there is usually agreement in advance among Members. For
a longer discussion of secret sessions, see CRS Report RS20145, Secret Sessions of
Congress: A Brief Historical Overview, by Mildred Amer.
Authority in the Constitution and Rules
Authority for the House and Senate to hold secret sessions appears in Article I,
section 5, of the Constitution, which says: “Each House may determine the Rules of its
proceedings…Each House shall keep a journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time
publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their judgment require Secrecy...” Both
chambers have implemented this section through rules and precedents. A chamber’s rules
apply during secret sessions in the House and Senate, except during impeachment
deliberations in the Senate.
In the House, Rule XVII, clause 9, governs secret sessions, including the types of
business to be considered behind closed doors. A motion to resolve into a secret session
may only be made in the House, not in Committee of the Whole. A Member who offers
such a motion announces the possession of confidential information, and moves that the
House go into a secret session. The motion is not debatable, but, if agreed to, the Member
making the motion is recognized under the one-hour rule in closed session.
For Senate impeachment proceedings, Rules XX and XXIV of the Senate Rules for
Impeachment Trials govern secret deliberations. The Senate has interpreted these rules
to require open deliberations during impeachment trials, unless the Senate votes to close
its doors during deliberations. Standing Senate Rules XXI, XXIX, and XXXI cover secret
sessions for legislative and executive business (nominations and treaties). Rule XXI calls
for the Senate to close its doors once a motion is made and seconded. The motion is not
debatable, and its disposition is made behind closed doors. Rule XXIX calls for Senate
consideration of treaties to be conducted in secret unless the Senate lifts the “injunction
of secrecy,” which it usually does and undertakes by unanimous consent. Rule XXXI
mandates that all nominations, treaties, and other matters be considered in open session
unless the Senate votes to do so in secret, and, for treaties, the injunction of secrecy has
History and Current Practice
The Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention met in secret. The
Senate met in secret until 1794, its first rules reflecting a belief that the body’s various
special roles, including providing advice and consent to the executive branch, compelled
it to conduct its business behind closed doors. The Senate’s executive sessions (to
consider nominations and treaties) were not opened until 1929.
Since 1929, the Senate has held 54 secret sessions, generally for reasons of national
security. On November 1, 2005, the Senate met behind closed doors to discuss Iraq war
intelligence. Six of the seven most recent secret sessions, however, were held during the
impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.1 In 1997, the Senate met in secret to consider
the Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty and in 1992, to debate the “most favored
nation” status of China. The Senate also closed its doors during the impeachment trial of
federal judges in 1933 and 1936 and on six occasions in the 1980s.
The House met frequently in secret session through the end of the War of 1812, and
then only in 1825 and in 1830. Since 1830, the House has met behind closed doors only
four times: in 1979 to discuss the Panama Canal, in 1980 to discuss Central American
assistance, in 1983 to discuss U.S. support for paramilitary operations in Nicaragua, and
in 2008 during debate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).2
Members and staff of both houses are prohibited from divulging information from
secret sessions, and all staff are sworn to secrecy. Violations of secrecy are punishable by
the disciplinary rules of a chamber. A Member may be subject to a variety of
punishments, including loss of seniority, fine, reprimand, censure, or expulsion. An
officer or employee may be fired or subject to other internal disciplinary actions.
1 On January 8, 1999, the Senate Democratic and Republican Conferences held a rare joint, secret
meeting in the old Senate chamber to discuss the procedure for the pending impeachment trial
of the President, but this was not a formal, secret session of the Senate.
2 There have been several recent, unsuccessful attempts to force the House to hold a secret
session. On September 26, 2006, the House voted not to go into a secret session to discuss an
assessment of the war in Iraq. See Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 152, September 26,
2006, p. H7371. On May 10, 2007, the House rejected three different motions to hold a secret
session during the debate on the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008. See
Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 153, May 10, 2007, pp. H4795-4796, H4808, and
H4867-H4868. For the debate prior to the 2008 secret session, refer to Congressional Record,
daily edition, vol. 164, Mar. 13, 2008, pp. H1690-H1699.
The proceedings of a secret session are not published unless the relevant chamber
votes, during the meeting or at a later time, to release them. Then, those portions released
are printed in the Congressional Record.
If the House decides not to release a transcript, it is ultimately transferred to the
clerk of the House for transmittal to the archivist of the United States for preservation at
the National Archives and Records Administration. The transcripts may be made available
to the public after 30 years (Rule VII, clauses 3 and 4).
If the Senate does not approve release of a secret session transcript, the transcript is
stored in the Office of Senate Security and ultimately sent to the National Archives and
Records Administration. The proceedings remain sealed until the Senate votes to remove
the injunction of secrecy.