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'Secret Holds' | Globe Editorial

Senate tradition at its worst

June 26, 2010

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THE VENERATION of tradition runs deep in the US Senate, but some traditions are indefensible. One of them is the “secret hold,’’ a procedure that allows any senator to anonymously block the Senate from voting on a bill or on the confirmation of a presidential nominee. Because Senate rules require unanimous consent to bring a motion to the Senate floor, any senator’s objection is enough to keep legislation or a nomination in limbo.

These holds are obstructionist and undemocratic even when senators openly announce what they’re doing and explain their reasons for doing it. Those senators are at least making themselves accountable to the voters who elected them. But the secret hold — the power to stop a bill or nomination dead in its tracks, namelessly and without any explanation — is intolerable. It is a standing invitation to abuse and vindictiveness, it prevents presidents from filling vacancies efficiently, and it treats the public with contempt.

As a rule, secret holds are exploited by senators from the party that doesn’t control the White House. Many of President George W. Bush’s appointees were anonymously blocked by Senate Democrats; now Senate Republicans are doing the same to many of President Obama’s nominees. As of Memorial Day, 120 executive and judicial nominations were stalled, nearly all of them via secret holds.

Happily, a critical mass of senators appears to be ready to pull the plug on this disgraceful practice. According to Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, 66 senators have signed a letter declaring that “the secret hold has no rightful place in the Senate or in an open and transparent democracy,’’ and asking Majority Leader Harry Reid to schedule a vote abolishing it. Together with Reid (who supports a ban, but didn’t sign the letter since it was addressed to him), that makes 67 votes, the number needed to amend the Senate’s standing rules. To their credit, both Massachusetts senators, John Kerry and Scott Brown, are among the 67. Reid should waste no time bringing the proposed change to a vote.

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