They don’t call the U.S. Senate the world’s greatest deliberative body for nothing – deliberation being a synonym, in its case, for glacial decision-making and process worship.
This week offers a rare opportunity for junking an indefensible chock in the Senate’s wheels: the secret hold. It’s a parliamentary trick senators employ to anonymously block votes on bill and presidential nominees. Even other senators sometimes don’t know which of their colleagues has tied up the question or why.
Republicans and Democrats – most notably Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa – have been trying for years to rid the Senate of this particularly spineless form of obstructionism.
The power to openly and temporarily hold action on a measure is a perfectly defensible privilege; senators may want to clarify what’s really in a bill that affects their home states, or study the qualifications of a nominee.
But Senate rules go beyond that; they allow an individual senator, with the permission of caucus leaders, to lock up an issue without stating any reason and without revealing his or her identity. In theory, the hold can stay in place only six days, but there’s no penalty for ignoring the deadline.
In any case, the senator’s allies can tag-team the hold, passing it off to each other and keeping it going for months.
More galling yet, the senator in question may have no problem at all with the decision being kept in limbo – he or she may be holding it hostage to squeeze some unrelated concession out of Congress or the president.
Over the years, hundreds of good nominations and bills have been hung up – and sometimes killed – by secret holds. The procedure is part of the reason roughly 90 seats in the federal courts haven’t been filled.
The practice may finally be abolished this week. Its elimination has become a chip in the bargaining over an attempt by some Democrats to get rid of the Senate filibuster, which can allow a minority of 41 to stall legislation to death.
Those Democrats insist that their party can kill the filibuster by simple majority as the Senate approves its rules this week.
For better or worse, though, the filibuster rule isn’t going away anytime soon. The political reality is that other Democrats want to hang on to the filibuster in case they wind up in the minority two years from now.
Republicans and Democrats tend to love or hate the filibuster in a very bipartisan way, depending on which of them currently contols the Senate.
The secret hold, though, amounts to a “filibuster of one” and is detested by plenty of senators on both sides of the aisle. It deserves an immediate and ignominious death.