The federal government needlessly classifies millions of documents and spends billions doing so, experts told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Wednesday.

"The government's total security classification cost for fiscal year 2015 was $16.2 billion, and contractors and other nongovernmental entities spent an additional $1.3 billion," said Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

"Over-classification adds to those costs," he continued. If the "50 percent of overturned classifications statistics provides a rough estimate of the level of the problem throughout the process, then there are potentially billions to be saved by solving our over-classification problem," Amey stated in written testimony.

J. William Leonard, a former director of the Information Security Oversight Office who oversaw the Pentagon's implementation of a 1995 executive order aimed at reforming the classification system, testified that his experience showed him the government keeps too much information from the public and from the courts and Congress that could force it to be more open.

The "executive branch is both incapable and unwilling to achieve true reform in this area," he said about the ill-fated 1995 effort. "I also believe it is unreasonable to expect it to do so" because it is not in the executive's interest to do so, Leonard said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, administrations have laid "claim to new and novel authorities" and "often wrap these claims in classification. This can amount to unchecked executive power," he said because frequently the administrations make the decisions in secret, thereby evading judicial or legislative scrutiny.

Therefore, "no one should ever be surprised that the authority to classify information ends up being routinely abused, either deliberately or not, in matters both big and small," Leonard stated in written testimony.

Keeping secrets is essential to national security, Leonard acknowledged. "However, when negligently or recklessly applied, over-classification of information can undermine the very integrity of the system we depend upon to ensure that our nation's adversaries cannot use national security-related information to harm us and can place at increased risk truly sensitive information."

Leonard said that although the punishment for unnecessarily labeling a document classified is as severe as it is for improperly disclosing classified information, the former is rarely prosecuted while the later is aggressively pursued.

That creates a prevailing "when in doubt, classify" attitude that Congress needs to address, he said.

He also encouraged Congress to require independent reviews of the classification process and to increase classification audits by departments' inspectors general.

Thomas Blanton, who oversees the National Security Archive at George Washington University, said recently strengthened Freedom of Information Act laws show how prevalent the abuse is.

"For example, the CIA finally had to release their internal draft history of the Bay of Pigs disaster, revealing — horrors — that the agency suffered a nasty internal power struggle afterwards — hardly a national security secret, just bureaucratic 'dirty linen,' he stated in written testimony.

Blanton said congressional interference is long overdue.

Lawmakers should "write a law to govern an out-of-control, dysfunctional, counterproductive classification system," which so far they have left to administrations that "claimed as much power as they could get away with in the name of the commander-in-chief," he stated.

Blanton reminded the committee that former New Hampshire Gov. Tom Kean, who led the 9/11 commission, determined that excessive secrecy played a role in security agencies' failure to catch the plotters before they struck.