The Senate should override Jim DeMint and limit 'secret holds'

Monday, May 24, 2010; A18

SOUTH CAROLINA Republican Sen. Jim DeMint would like to see an end to the insidious process known as the "secret hold." Or so we are told. Mr. DeMint's actions suggest otherwise. This month, without any warning, he effectively prevented a planned vote on an amendment to end secret holds by attaching a controversial measure to complete construction of a border fence. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) -- who, by the way, voted for an earlier version of the border-fence provision -- withdrew his amendment.

But Mr. Wyden, who has been joined in this 14-year battle by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), came back to the Senate floor last week to try again. On Monday night, Mr. Wyden sought unanimous consent to have the amendment brought up for a vote, only to be blocked by Idaho Republican Jim Risch. "I do not have any problem with the substance, but I know Senator DeMint has serious issues with it," Mr. Risch explained. "We would like to have an opportunity to talk with him." On Tuesday night, Mr. Wyden was at it again, only to encounter an objection from Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, again objecting on Mr. DeMint's behalf.

Mr. Wyden said on the floor that Mr. DeMint had not come to him or Mr. Grassley to discuss the amendment. "He has objected through colleagues. . . . This strikes me as an absolutely indefensible way to do business. It is a concrete case, in my view, of why the American people are so furious about the way business is done in Washington, D.C."

The Senate is a body that functions, to the extent that it does, largely through the process of unanimous consent. Absent unanimous consent to vote on an amendment, a piece of legislation or a nominee, the rules governing filibusters and cloture kick in, consuming floor time. A single senator can thus gum up the works and effectively prevent a vote unless the majority leader is willing to devote the necessary attention to making it happen. That may sound bad enough, but the real travesty occurs when the objecting senator does not have to come forward to identify himself or herself and explain the reason for the hold. This is government in the dark, not government in the light.

As Mr. Grassley explained, "When things are secret, it is not only obnoxious to our principle of representative government; it violates the opportunity for an institution such as this to actually work." The Wyden-Grassley amendment would limit these secret holds to 48 hours -- long enough for senators who have potential concerns to familiarize themselves with the issue and state their objections publicly. "Senator Wyden and I are going to pursue this, because this is the time to do it," Mr. Grassley said Tuesday. "The abuse of this power has gone on way too long." We agree.

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