It's time to end secret holds on Senate legislation

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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

IF THERE were an up-or-down vote in the Senate on whether to continue the pernicious practice of secret holds, the only suspense would involve whether anyone would dare to vote against this abuse. The difficulty, however, is obtaining that vote. Currently, the chief obstacle is Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has been blocking the efforts of Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) to bring a little sunshine to Senate gridlock.

Five times in the past few weeks, Mr. DeMint has blocked a vote on the Wyden-Grassley amendment to curb secret holds, mostly through surrogates objecting on his behalf. On one occasion last week, however, Mr. DeMint at least bothered to explain his obstruction--although the reason he gave conflicted with what his spokesman had told us earlier.

When the Wyden-Grassley secret-holds amendment was offered on the floor during the debate on financial reform, Mr. DeMint torpedoed it by tacking on an unrelated provision requiring completion of the Mexican border fence. His spokesman, Wesley Denton, said Mr. DeMint added his proposal to the "Democrat amendment" because he had been told no amendments unrelated to the financial reform bill were being considered. After checking with the senator, Mr. Denton said Mr. DeMint supported ending secret holds. However, he noted, "the American people are much more concerned about border security than about Senate procedure."

Last week, Mr. DeMint expressed a different view: not that Senate procedure is irrelevant, but that Mr. Wyden and Mr. Grassley are concentrating on the wrong issue of Senate procedure. "The problem is not secret holds; it is the secret passing of bills, when often we don't even know who is requesting passage," Mr. DeMint said. He argued that the Senate should take up a proposal by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to require that all measures be posted on the Internet for three days before being brought up for a vote. Mr. DeMint said he "will not support" the secret-holds amendment without the Coburn-McCaskill amendment.

This is ridiculous. The precise wording of the latter amendment is still under discussion. Mr. Wyden and Mr. Grassley say they will support it. Adequate time for informed deliberation is important. But so is transparent government. Under the Wyden-Grassley amendment, holds would still be available to senators who want to block a pending nominee or piece of legislation. They would simply have to put their names to them, not hide under a cloak of anonymity.

In 2007, after years of lobbying by Mr. Wyden and Mr. Grassley, the Senate tried to crack down on secret holds by requiring that authors come forward within six days. But senators have evaded that rule by handing off their anonymous hold to another, anonymous colleague. The Wyden-Grassley proposal would require senators who want to place a hold on legislation to do so in writing to their party leader; the statement would be published two days later. It's hard to understand what Mr. DeMint's problem is with that. As Mr. Grassley said on the Senate floor, "I think you might leave the impression that there is some subterfuge to see that the Wyden-Grassley bill does not get adopted."


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