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A Times Editorial

Senate "secret holds" thwart effective government

Too many Republicans in the U.S. Senate are using the chamber's byzantine rules to keep President Barack Obama from getting on with the business of governing. They are aggressively using an abusive practice known as the "secret hold" that allows a single senator to anonymously stall presidential appointments and legislation. Dozens of the president's key executive and judicial appointments have been stymied, most by Republican senators who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. This practice is anathema to government transparency and accountability and needs to be abolished.

To get some idea of how excessively this underhanded tool is being employed against Obama, at this point in George W. Bush's presidency there were only 13 nominations pending in the Senate for more than two days. Obama has 120 nominees in that predicament, with most under a secret hold.

The problem was supposed to be rectified in 2007 when Senate rules were changed to require senators with holds to publicly identify themselves within six session days. But that rule has been almost entirely ignored. To evade disclosure, GOP senators are apparently transferring secret holds to other senators as they come up on the six-day deadline.

These holds prevent vital posts from being filled and block bills that special interests want to stall — without giving the public the ability to match the lobbyist to the lawmaker doing the political favor. It is a way for politicians to avoid public scorn or political consequences for helping out big campaign donors.

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have been fighting these holds for years. During the debate in the Senate on financial reform they put forward an amendment to require senators to come forward within 48 hours. If a hold is handed off to another senator, then that person would be publicly identified as having placed the hold. But the amendment was thwarted when Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., attached an unrelated measure to it regarding the completion of the border fence between the United States and Mexico. The idea was undoubtedly to kill the Wyden-Grassley amendment.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is also leading an effort to get Senate rules changed to bar the secret holds. She has collected the signatures of 64 senators, including six Republicans and Florida's Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, who have promised not to use a secret hold and are calling for their elimination. She needs three more to meet the number for a rule change. Florida Republican Sen. George LeMieux says he has not seen the letter but thinks secret holds are one of the rules of the Senate that "needs to be changed." LeMieux should sign on to McCaskill's efforts.

Any senator not proud enough to put his or her name on an effort to stall a presidential nomination or a piece of legislation shouldn't be doing so in the first place. These needless political games are impacting the ability of government to operate.

Senate "secret holds" thwart effective government 06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 6:14pm]
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