“Of all the maddening practices that clog the arteries of the national legislature, the most infuriating may be the Senate institution known as the ‘secret hold,'” the Washington Post noted in an editorial this week. Secret holds allow senators to indefinitely prevent a presidential nominee from coming up for a vote, without ever having to provide a reason or identify themselves. Senate Republicans have used secret holds to an unprecedented degree under President Obama, and are currently anonymously blocking at least 52 nominees, all of whom were “noncontroversial in committee debate.”
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) proposed new rules to rein in secret holds, but “Republicans thwarted” the bipartisan effort yesterday when Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) attached a poison pill amendment:
The Senate was expected to vote Thursday afternoon on an amendment by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) restricting secret holds. But Wyden chose to withdraw the measure after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said he would attempt to attach to it language requiring construction of a 700-mile security fence along the Southwest border.
“Until about an hour or so ago, I thought we would win a dramatic victory for the cause of open government,” Wyden said on the floor, adding that he was “flabbergasted” that DeMint pushed his security amendment, which would have made it impossible to pass the provision on secret holds.
A senior GOP aide said DeMint added his frivolous amendment because Democrats had “degenerated the amendment process into one with a bunch of off-topic political votes.” But when DeMint first announced his amendment, he made no mention of “off-topic political votes” as his reason for raising the border fence.
In an editorial yesterday, the New York Times noted that despite a 2007 rule requiring senators to identify themselves within six days of blocking a nominee, senators simply “pass secret holds among themselves to foil the time limit.” There’s currently no way to prevent this “hold laundering,” as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) dubbed it. Last month, he and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) tried to enforce the rule, only to be thwarted by Minority Whip Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who blocked votes on 97 nominees by repeatedly objecting to the two senators’ unanimous consent requests.
Democrats have used secret holds in the past as well, but McCaskill has been able get almost the entire caucus to sign a letter pledging to never again use secret holds, “not even under a Republican president.”