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A pointless procedure

A single senator's ability to block legislation or a nomination, in secret, should be abolished, or at least reformed.

May 15, 2010

It's common knowledge that it takes a majority vote in the Senate to approve legislation or nominations, and that 60 votes are necessary to end a filibuster. Most citizens would be surprised, however, to learn that sometimes the magic number for blocking action is neither 51 nor 41 but one. Under long-standing practice, a single senator can put a "hold" on a bill or nomination for any reason at all. Worse, holds are often anonymous.

On Thursday, the Senate considered an amendment that would shine additional light on the holds process. Sponsored by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), it would strengthen an existing, and much-ignored, 2007 disclosure law by reducing from six to two days the period between the imposition of a hold and the identification in the Congressional Record of the senator requesting it. Another change would apply disclosure requirements to holds placed on legislation before it reaches the Senate floor. Unfortunately, the proposal was withdrawn after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) attached a secondary amendment mandating the completion within a year of a 700-mile security fence along the Mexican border.

Technically, a hold is an arrangement in which a senator threatens to prevent the unanimous consent needed to bring legislation or a nomination expeditiously to the floor. The abuse of holds has frustrated President Obama's efforts to staff his administration and lighten the workload of the federal courts. Earlier this year, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) placed holds on some 70 of Obama's nominations to get the administration's attention on two issues affecting his state.

Ideally, holds would be abolished. But disclosure of who is standing in the way of a particular piece of legislation could end some of the obstructionism. Wyden insists that he will continue to press his proposal until senators consider it on its merits and without "poison pill" amendments. Meanwhile, nearly every Democratic senator, including California's Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, has signed on to a letter to the leadership written by three Democrats pledging not to place secret holds on legislation and nominations. The resistance to disclosure comes from Republicans, who need to realize that secret holds could be used by Democrats against a future Republican administration.

Desirable as disclosure is, it would accomplish little without some enforcement mechanism. We support a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that senators who fail to disclose holds as required by Senate rules be referred to the Ethics Committee.

Like earmarks and backroom deals, holds reflect the insider culture that has contributed to Congress' low standing with the American people. The abolition of secret holds would be an important step toward openness and accountability.

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