Patty in the News

End anonymous blocking in Senate

Jul 12 2010


The U.S. Senate may soon become a bit more functional. A time-honored but much abused Senate tradition that allows a single member to secretly block confirmation votes or hold up legislation looks to be on its last legs. The "Secret Holds Elimination Act," co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, reportedly has 67 supporters — the minimum number required to amend Senate rules.

If this bill can be brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote before the end of the year, the number of supporters would likely jump dramatically. Few senators would defend this rule publicly. Who, after all, would argue on behalf of anonymity when obstructing votes on presidential nominees or significant legislation? That's an argument against personal accountability. Anonymity can only serve to mask petty or narrow political interests that may have motivated a hold.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., framed the issue well during a recent Senate Rules Committee hearing on the Wyden-Grassley bill: "If I decide to hold up a nominee or bill, my constituents deserve to know that I am doing it, and why. I believe this should hold true for all of us. We need to move away from secretive, back room politics."

This century-old Senate practice began innocently enough. Holds were first employed as a courtesy to senators who were unable to come to the Senate floor for a debate or vote. But the custom has since evolved into a tool for delay and obstruction. Secret holds now are particularly common for confirmation votes on presidential nominees. Some nominations have been held in limbo for months by a single senator, often for reasons that could not begin to stand up to public scrutiny.

Associated Press writer Jim Abrams reported in May that Sen. Jim Bunning , R-Ky., blocked a vote on a U.S. trade representative nominee for more than six months "because he wanted the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to go after Canada for banning flavored cigarettes." More notable, was the blanket hold Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Al., placed on 70 presidential nominees early this year in an effort to force approval of two federal contracts that would benefit his state.

It should be noted that the use and abuse of secret holds is bipartisan. Democrats, when in the minority, were no less fond of using secret holds to block votes on the previous administration's nominees. But, increasingly, members of both parties are troubled by how often this rule is being used. Currently, votes on 96 nominations are blocked by secret holds.

We're encouraged by the number of senators who now support the effort to bring those who would exercise this unique and consequential authority out of the shadows. Transparency is always a good thing in government. As Wyden has stated previously, "This is about fundamental accountability and fairness. If senators feel strongly enough about an issue that they are going to take the extreme step of blocking a nomination or a piece of legislation, then they should have the courage to take responsibility for their actions and explain why."

- Longview Daily News