Few of the arcane traditions and privileges enjoyed by U.S. senators fly in the face of the principles of accountability and transparency as blatantly as the secret hold — the legislative technique whereby a single lawmaker can scuttle a nomination or pending legislation anonymously.
As TPM readers know, we’ve tracked a number of secret holds in recent years, with the goal of bringing the lawmaker’s identity to light. In 2006, for instance, we enlisted readers’ help in identifying the senator who had placed a secret hold on legislation to make a searchable database of government grants and contracts.
When the Senate passed ethics reform in 2007, it banned the practice. And yet, more than two years later, secret holds are alive and well. They’ve been used to hold up or kill several items recently, including a veterans’ health care bill, and the confirmation of Hilda Solis as President Obama’s secretary of labor.
Now, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is trying to fix the problem once and for all, calling for the Senate Ethics committee to investigate and discipline senators who continue to use secret holds. In a letter to the committee, CREW notes that since the passage of the law, senators have only disclosed their holds as required on two occasions. The problem, CREW writes, is that while the 2007 law prohibited the use of secret holds, no corresponding change was made to the Senate rules, and there is no provision for punishing senators who use the forbidden technique.
“Failing to abide by the provision — particularly in light of the fact that it was passed as part of an ethics overhaul — does not reflect creditably on the Senate,” wrote Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director.
You can read the complete text of CREW’s letter to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics here.