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


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.