April 29, 2002
Congressional Holds

From today's Washington Post comes this little blurb, on one of the more distasteful practices in congress:

Some lawmakers flit from issue to issue, depending on the headlines, polls and squeaky wheels at home. Others grab onto issues, sometimes rather esoteric ones, and hang on like bulldogs.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) clearly fall in the latter category. Undaunted by earlier failures, they have launched a new drive to end the largely below-the-radar practice by which senators can block action on legislation or nominations by putting anonymous "holds" on them.
They are not seeking to do away with holds themselves; they want only to force them to be made public, arguing that secrecy is inimical to democracy, accountability and the proper functioning of the Senate.
When Wyden and Grassley began their campaign five years ago, they won too easily. But their victories did not last long.
First the Senate voted without audible dissent in 1997 and 1998 to include their proposal to end secrecy on holds in an appropriations bill. No one wanted to be caught publicly defending the practice. But, to no one's surprise, the provisions were stripped out in negotiations with the House.
Then, in 1999, Senate leaders Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) told their colleagues to notify bill sponsors, their party leaders and committees of jurisdiction when they impose holds. For a time, senators seemed to be complying, but, by late last year, the rule was being honored in the breach by enough senators to cause problems.
For example, Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) put retaliatory and publicly disclosed holds on Republican proposals after undisclosed GOP senators held up a Wellstone veterans bill.
But Wellstone wasn't the only one. "We began hearing complaints that someone was putting on a secret hold or thinking about it," Wyden said. "We may have gotten to the point where a majority won't do it, but it only takes a few" to cause trouble.
So Wyden and Grassley swung into action again, proposing a rule change to end the secrecy, perhaps for good this time. The proposal has been sent to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
"Every time we do this, it's my sense that things get better . . . at least for a while," Wyden said.

Practices such as secret holds, often for personal vendettas or for pure spite, are one of the reasons why congress is often held in low regard by the public. If a hold is placed upon any action or nomination, the person who places the hold needs to be publicly identified; the public (and the media) have a right to know why any piece of legislation has not been acted upon. If all holds currently in place were to be made public, I suspect that there would be several embarrassed senators scrambling to explain to the public why they don't want legislation or nominations to come up for a vote.

Public disclosures will eliminate much of the petty holds. For those holds that are placed for ideological opposition, there should be no fear of being portrayed as a partisan when one is being partisan. This is why the Wyden/Grassley initiative should be supported.

posted on April 29, 2002 01:48 PM


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