Outside editorial: It's time to end 'secret hold' in the US Senate

Posted: Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

The U.S. Senate is poised to eliminate one of the most anti-democratic features of its political culture: the "secret hold" by which a single senator can surreptitiously block action on a nomination or piece of legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has placed on the Senate calendar the Secret Holds Elimination Act, the latest of several attempts to rein in the practice. It should be promptly approved.

A hold is an arrangement in which a senator threatens to block the unanimous consent routinely used to bring legislation or a nomination - even one approved overwhelmingly by the appropriate committee - to a vote. It has been used by senators of both parties as a bargaining chip. Earlier this year, for example, Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., placed holds on about 70 of President Obama's nominations, to get the administration's attention on issues affecting his state.

At present a senator imposing a hold must identify himself or herself to the majority or minority leader or to a member of their staff, but not to the rest of the Senate or the public. The proposal by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Charles E. Grassley, R- Iowa and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would require that all holds be submitted in writing and printed in the Congressional Record after one legislative day, whether or not the bill or nomination has been brought up for floor consideration.

The proposal wouldn't abolish holds, and there is no guarantee that publicizing a hold will force a senator to relent. But in many cases the embarrassment of disclosure will have that effect, especially if the reason for the hold turns out to be unrelated to the bill or nomination.

In April, two-thirds of the Senate, including California's Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, signed a letter to the Democratic and Republican leaders promising not to place secret holds on legislation and nominations and urging that the practice be ended. The Senate was on the verge of accepting that advice in May, but the proposal was withdrawn after it became entangled with the issue of completing a security fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The campaign to abolish secret holds might seem to favor Democrats rather than Republicans, because it's a Democratic president whose nominees are currently subject to holds. But it would be shortsighted of Republicans not to recognize that someday a president of their party will be asking for expeditious confirmation of his appointees.

The Senate prides itself on being the world's greatest deliberative body. But deliberation by the entire Senate is different from delaying tactics by a single member. It's time to retire the secret hold.



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