Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., recently got into a bit of trouble when he falsely stated on the floor of the Senate that, “If you want an abortion you go to Planned Parenthood and that’s well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does.” Only about 3% of business at Planned Parenthood is actually abortion services. A spokesman for Kyl later corrected Kyl’s statement by stating, “…his remark was not intended to be a factual statement.”
As it happens, Kyl didn’t just intend for the 90% number to not be a “factual statement,” he also doesn’t intend for it to be a statement at all. Kyl has revised his remarks from the Senate floor in the official Congressional Record and removed the 90% line altogether.
This episode exposes an oft-overlooked peculiarity of Congress’ “official” Congressional Record: members of Congress can revise and insert remarks into the Record, altering the historical record.
The Sunlight Foundation’s Open House Project included an entire chapter devoted to changing the rules that allow Congress to change their statements after the fact. The Open House Project report stated, “The Congressional Record serves to inform people of the actual spoken comments by their elected officials. Citizens should be able to determine if their elected representatives, after seeing the votes of their colleagues, went back to the Congressional Record and edited what they said about a proposed legislation. The public should also be able to determine whether or not their elected members participated in a given debate.”
A 2007 report from Reason Magazine detailed many instances of absurd abuses of the Congressional Record revision authority given to lawmakers. Aside from the insertion of speeches made by a dead congressman, perhaps the most famous incident of Congressional Record revision was an imagined colloquy between Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Kyl:
…look at Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the military commissions established to try the Guantanamo detainees violate the Geneva Conventions. During the runup to the decision, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) filed a brief arguing that the court shouldn’t be able to judge the plaintiff’s complaints, since the “text, history, and purpose of the Detainee Treatment Act confirm that Congress intended to withdraw federal-court jurisdiction to review the detention-related claims of Guantanamo detainees.” This intent, they argued, was “confirmed” by the legislative history of the act, which featured an “extensive colloquy” between Sens. Graham and Kyl on the subject.
Alas, the colloquy was … fictional … It was inserted into the Record after the fact but was written to give the impression that it wasn’t, complete with lines like “I have just been handed a memorandum on this subject” and even an imaginary interruption by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).
In the age of YouTube, Twitter, and second-by-second news updates, the ability to revise one’s remarks in the Congressional Record appears to be a vanity exercise. The removals of “ums” and stutters may be acceptable, but lawmakers should not be able to falsify the record by removing their controversial and inaccurate statements. Congressmen and the public should look to the Open House Report recommendations for further guidance.
For now, we’ll just use the new official record of Congress: