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A Bill, a ‘Hold’ and a (Possibly) Lying Senator

If you’re wondering what has become of the Senate’s effort to bring up an ostensibly noncontroversial campaign finance bill, it’s best to remember that if you ask Senators no questions, they’ll tell you no lies.

Case in point: When Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) recently was asked whether he was the Republican lawmaker with an anonymous “hold” on the measure requiring Senators to file their campaign finance reports electronically, he jokingly responded, “I cannot believe you would ask such a direct question. How can I obfuscate?”

Lott later said he was not blocking the bill, noting he did not oppose it during consideration by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, on which he sits.

Still, it seems no Republican wants to fess up to placing the nearly monthlong hold on a bill that would make it easier for the public and the media to access Senate campaign finance reports, which currently are filed on paper, unlike House reports, which must be filed electronically.

Curiously, the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, along with help from some other watchdog groups and liberal blogs, last month got constituents and other concerned citizens to ask all 100 Senators whether they were the one with a hold on the bill. The unanimous answer was, “Not me.”

Which leads to the question: Who’s been lying?

“It’s hard for me to imagine that a Senator lied outright to a constituent, but it’s not hard for me to imagine that a Senator would play word games,” said Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller, whose group has had success in the past at ferreting out anonymous holders.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office explained that the nameless Senator or Senators do not have a technical “hold” on the bill — which involves asking to be notified when a bill is brought forward on the floor — but is merely objecting to the Democrats’ surprise proposal to immediately pass the measure without amendment.

“They tried to bring it to the floor with no amendments and no debate, and Senators objected to that, as is so often the case” when such attempts are made, said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

Of course, that was not articulated by either of the Republican proxies — Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Jim Bunning (Ky.) — who objected, respectively, on behalf of “a Republican Senator” on April 17 and on behalf of “the Republican side” on April 26. And it is still a mystery which specific amendments the GOP wants to offer, but it appears the objector wants to offer amendments changing other parts of current campaign finance law.

McConnell refused to answer a question last week on whether Senators were permitted to deny that they have holds, but he did indicate that he personally supports the electronic filing bill.

Still, Senate aides acknowledge that the very point of the anonymous hold is the ability to deny that you are the one placing it.

Meanwhile, Miller and Senate Democrats dispute the semantic difference between a hold and the current objection to the electronic filing bill. As one Democratic aide said, “A hold is the same thing as objecting to a [unanimous consent] request to proceed to a bill,” which is part of what Democrats tried to do with the electronic filing bill.

The issue of plausible deniability is not just a problem that Miller’s group has had. Ask any Senator who’s had a bill blocked by an anonymous hold and they’ll tell you that rooting out the truth is not easy.

“I’d go and start talking to people, and they can say, ‘It’s not me.’ And it’s all a matter of the honor system, and you assume that they’re telling the truth,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who still does not know which Democrat or Democrats last year held up his bill to help gasoline stations install alternative fuel pumps.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) concurred.

“You go through the process of elimination,” he said. “You kind of eyeball the Senators, asking, ‘You? You? You?’ and you narrow it down. You may never put your finger on it. I really think that’s the point where the system really falls apart.”

Often staffers place holds on bills with or without their bosses’ knowledge, Thune said. “That gives them plausible deniability,” he noted.

Additionally, Senators can engage in rotating holds, which is what Thune surmised happened to his bill last year.

“About the time you figured out who it was, they would lift it, and somebody else would put [a hold] on, and it was all kind of this conspiracy,” Thune said.

Of course, Republicans engage in the same tactics, said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

The Senate Republican Steering Committee, the conservative arm of the Republican Conference, “has put [rotating] holds on bills before because some Senators didn’t want to come forward,” Craig explained. “So you can have generic holds.”

According to the staff of current Steering Committee Chairman Jim DeMint (S.C.), there is no Steering hold on the electronic filing bill.

Though there is language in the current version of the Senate’s ethics and lobbying reform bill forcing Senators to take credit for holds within three days of notifying their leadership, interpretation of the provision may continue to allow rotating holds, several aides said. The ethics and lobbying bill has not yet been passed by both chambers, so its provisions have not taken effect even though 84 Senators voted for the hold transparency provision.

Traditionally, holds are placed when the majority party attempts to “hotline” a measure for quick passage. In many instances, a Senator will place a temporary hold to review the legislation before it is approved.

But as Durbin pointed out, there are many reasons for placing a more lasting hold. He said that a Senator might do it “so he could talk to someone about an amendment or so it will never come up.”

McConnell said last week that the problem with the electronic filing bill could be solved if, first, Reid would actually bring up the subject of the bill in the leaders’ weekly meetings, and second, allow Republicans to offer amendments.

It appears that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans in the Senate have broached the subject of passing the bill outside of Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) two attempts on the floor last month.

However, Republicans say the whole controversy is much ado about nothing.

The electronic filing bill “is eventually going to pass,” Lott predicted.

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