Senior Senators are rallying around the idea of ending the practice of placing anonymous holds on legislation or nominations, but have still been unable to reach a consensus on precisely how to implement the change in a legislative body that cherishes autonomy.
Appearing before the Rules and Administration Committee on Tuesday, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) urged their colleagues to approve a change in the Senate rules that would force lawmakers to publicly acknowledge opposition to a bill or nominee, instead of hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.
“I think most Senators believe the Senate’s business should be conducted in public, and I think the American people would agree,” Wyden told the Rules panel.
But Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a senior committee member, cautioned his colleagues that trying to fix the secrecy situation by amending Senate rules was a dangerous game that could open the door to a series of changes that are not in the institution’s best interest.
“I want us to be very, very, very clear about amending the rules of the Senate,” said Byrd. “These rules have stood the test of time.”
“I think we can achieve the goal — without a rules change,” the West Virginian added.
While the ability to place a hold is not written into the Senate rules, it is a tradition that has long been honored because Senators maintain great individual power in the chamber. Senators may trigger a hold to either oppose a bill or nominee or to buy time to learn more about the legislation or a person before the Senate gives its final stamp of approval.
Senators also use holds to advance a pet issue unrelated to the bill or the nominee in question by agreeing to release the hold if their cause receives favorable action. In recent weeks, it was learned that Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) had secretly held up the promotions of more than 200 Air Force officers in an effort to try to force the military to station four more C-130 planes at an Idaho Air National Guard base.
In February 1999, then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) tried to stop the use of secret holds by requesting Senators publicly acknowledge their opposition, but that effort largely failed because it did not include a mechanism to enforce it. Now Lott, chairman of the Rules panel, said he favors a formal rules change to force Senators to honor full disclosure of a hold.
“A lot of Senators think we should do something about this,” Lott said in an interview after the hearing. “I am going to find a way to try and address this issue. We just may want to look at a way for some other alternatives, but I still think we should keep the option open for a rules change.”
Wyden and Grassley’s proposal specifically calls for a Senator to inform Senate leaders of his or her intent to trigger a hold, which in turn would be published in the Congressional Record no more than two days after notification. Codifying this procedure, Grassley said, would take pressure off Senate leaders to keep the holds anonymous.
“Rather than placing the entire burden on the Majority Leader to establish and enforce a policy with respect to anonymous holds, a provision in the Senate rules would represent the will of the Senate as an institution,” Grassley said.
Daschle described the resolution as a “sensible balance between the right of unlimited debate and the need for legislative transparency and efficiency.”
But Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he does not think the proposal goes far enough, arguing it should include disclosure of Senators who prevent a bill or nominee from passing by unanimous consent by indicating their intent to offer an amendment to the measure.
“At times people say we have an amendment [and] that takes that bill off the unanimous consent calendar,” Stevens said. “If that kills the bill, then I think those things ought to be disclosed. Who was it that raised the objection? Their bill does not require that.”
The inability among even those Senators who support this reform to reach a consensus demonstrates how difficult it will be to pass a measure that has provided lawmakers great freedom in blocking legislation or a nomination. And Lott acknowledged it is going to be that much harder when the resolution’s opponents stage what could be a clandestine effort to derail it.
“Unfortunately, one thing is certain,” Lott said. “If this committee decides that we should eliminate the secrecy surrounding holds, and we report this resolution, I am sure an anonymous Senator will put a hold on the resolution.”
But Lott pledged to continue working to reach an agreement on how to abolish secret holds in the upcoming months.
“I would like us to do something pretty quickly, but there is no emergency,” Lott said. “We could do it in the next couple of weeks or maybe in July. But we will do something on this, this summer.”