Government Reform

Will Someone Put a Secret Hold on the Abolition of Secret Holds?

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The Senate version of the ethics bill that Katherine Mangu-Ward mentioned earlier today includes a rule change that would abolish anonymous "holds" on legislation. "Over the past 50 years," says The New York Times, "the Senate hold—one of the most secretive backroom weapons in Congress—[has] been used to tie the chamber in knots by allowing senators to block legislation and nominations anonymously, and to do so for reasons as simple as pique or payback." That sounds pretty bad, but a hold is simply a senator's refusal to go along with legislation to which he objects. By preventing a bill from advancing by consensus, he forces his colleagues to muster 60 votes in its favor. "Though leaders can break a hold with a 60-vote majority," says the Times, "they have often been reluctant to do so out of respect for the tradition—and the chance they might want to impose a hold of their own some day."

Holds obviously can be used for purposes that offend supporters of limited government—to block earmark reform or to extort pork, for example. The Times notes that in 2003 "Senator Larry E. Craig, Republican of Idaho, openly put holds on 850 Air Force promotions while he demanded cargo planes for the Air National Guard in his state." But any maneuver that helps block legislation is apt to do more good than harm. Notably, both fiscal conservatives like Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and big spenders like Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) are fans of the hold.

Still, it's hard to see how requiring senators to publicly identify themselves and state their reasons for blocking a bill can hurt, although it may not help much. The abolition of secret holds suffers from the same weakness as the abolition of secret earmarks. As the Craig example illustrates, legislators don't try to hide their actions when they're proud of them, even if they shouldn't be. 

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  1. “…it’s hard to see how requiring senators to publicly identify themselves and state their reasons for blocking a bill can hurt….”

    Yes. And it’s hard to see how forcing Senators to vote on the record to overcome a “hold” would be bad. Senatorial courtesy is not necessarily a good thing.

  2. A “hold” is not an official tool in the Senate. It is simply a Senator stating his intention (to the person presiding over the Senate, like the VP or president pro tempore) to filibuster until he is ready to vote. The presider usually chooses to not introduce the bill in these cases, but he does not have to. A hold is just something that allows the operation of the senate to go more smoothly.

    For example, without a hold, the bill would be introduced and then subsequently filibustered. With the hold, the bill won’t be introduced because they know it will be filibustered. A hold is just a simplifying tool–it has no legal rule.

  3. I don’t like the anonymity.

  4. Brian: so let the Senator filibuster if he’s opposed to the bill. Or let him state publicly why he opposes the bill.

  5. But any maneuver that helps block legislation is apt to do more good than harm.

    If this were 1788 and we were starting from scratch, I’d agree with you. Given that it’s 2007 and the federal govt directly controls a third of the nation’s GDP and closely regulates another third, and the US Code takes up several phone-book-sized volumes, I’m not so sure.

    Putting bars on your windows and multiple locks on your doors is a good idea if the robbers are outside the house. If they’re inside, not so much.

  6. crimethink-

    Putting bars on your windows and multiple locks on your doors is a good idea if the robbers are outside the house. If they’re inside, not so much.

    Excellent!

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