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Editorial: Holding Action

It's Long Past Time for Senate to End Secret Obstructionism

We can’t say that if the Senate eliminated secret holds, public approval ratings for Congress would soar from their dismal 22 percent. Most Americans don’t know such a practice exists, though we suspect that if they did, they’d say “it figures.”

Citizens are fed up with Congress because — despite the passage of some significant legislation — their biggest problems remain unaddressed, and activity on Capitol Hill seems to be dominated by partisan gamesmanship, delay and obstruction.

Secret holds are a symbol of all that. They prevent business from getting done, notably the filling of vacancies in the executive branch. Currently, confirmation of more than 100 Obama administration officials is being blocked by Republican Senators.

Did Democrats resort to the tactic when they were in the minority? Do some of them put secret holds on bills or nominees now? No question, although at a similar point in George W. Bush’s administration, only 13 nominations were in limbo.

For more than a decade, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have been striving to end the practice. In 1997 and 1998, the Senate actually voted unanimously to require that Senators publish their intent to object to consideration of nominations, but the legislation did not survive House-Senate conferences on the bills to which it was attached.

In 1999, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) agreed on a policy whereby a Senator planning to deny unanimous consent notify the sponsor of the bill and the committee of jurisdiction. It didn’t stop the practice, however.

Nor did the passage, in 2007, of ethics legislation requiring holds to be made public. Senators continue to notify their leaders of intent to block bills and nominations, and the leaders let them do so secretly. And they find other Senators to deny unanimous consent to proceed on their behalf — allegedly as a “courtesy.”

Five times this year, Wyden and Grassley have tried to bring up their newest measure, an amendment to the Senate’s standing orders requiring disclosure of holds. Each time, they’ve been denied unanimous consent to bring up the measure.

Or in the latest case, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) sought to attach an amendment requiring construction of a wall along the entire Mexican border, causing Wyden and Grassley to pull it from consideration.

Just before Congress’ latest break, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promised that he’d consult with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about giving the measure an up-or-down vote without amendments during the current work period. Wyden estimates that, if it came to a vote, it would get overwhelming support.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart told Roll Call he wasn’t sure whether the leaders had yet agreed, but he pointed out that even if they did, some Senator could still object to bringing up the measure.

Indeed, that’s true. But it’s time — in the name of transparency and to begin restoring public faith in Congress — for the measure to be brought up for a clean vote. And if some Senator wants to object to its consideration, leaders can simply say: Do so publicly.

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