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Breaking the Senate's Secret Chokehold 

The US Senate has been described as the world’s most exclusive club, and like other exclusive clubs it has its own peculiar customs and rituals – some of them charming, many of them the opposite.

One of the least charming ones is the “secret hold,” a rule that allows any senator to block action on a piece of legislation simply by objecting to it – and he doesn’t even have to reveal his identity. It’s the legislative equivalent of blackballing.

Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, from Iowa, and Oregon’s own Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden have been fighting the good fight against the secret hold ever since 1997. Just this year they’ve tried five times to push forward a bill to severely restrict the use of the secret hold; five times Senate Republicans have gunned it down.

But they’re not giving up. Now that the Senate is back in session, they’re going to take another shot.

“Wyden and Grassley are both frustrated and angry because their proposal does nothing to weaken the use of holds,” according to an Oregonian story Tuesday. “They just want the objector to be named. The measure they wrote would require that the senator using the hold be named publicly within two days.”

Present rules require the identity of a senator imposing a secret hold to be disclosed within six days, but Wyden and Grassley said in a news release that’s not good enough because “the holding period has proven too long to be effective, and because this requirement is triggered only when the bill is brought to the floor for consideration, it is possible for senators to indefinitely block legislation from reaching the floor without ever disclosing that they are doing it much less why.” 

Among other things, secret holds have been used to block judicial and other appointments by President Obama. According to Huffington Post blogger Victor Williams, “over two hundred top federal posts remain vacant due to confirmation obstruction.”

“This is about fundamental accountability and fairness,” Wyden said in the news release. “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. The bottom line is that if you can’t make a good public case for why you are doing something, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

Pretty hard to argue with that logic, seems to me. In fact, whether it’s done secretly or not, the idea that a single senator can thwart the will of the other 99 seems totally nuts.

But if anybody wants to defend the practice of holds – secret or otherwise – go ahead and take your shot.

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