Obsession with Senate “Holds” Is Misguided

With the start of the 112th Congress, Senate Democrats have offered a set of rule changes, most of which are geared toward the filibuster.  Some of these changes, such as guaranteeing the minority at least three amendments, make a great deal of sense.  I’ve long thought that the practice of the majority leader (of any party) “filling the amendment tree” did not make for good legislating.  And I say that, recalling as a former Senate staffer, the practice made my life easier on numerous occasions.

One part of the package, however, that of ending “secret” holds, strikes me as rather uninformed as to actual Senate practice.  First let’s recall that a “hold’ is essentially a method for senators to tell the majority leader that if the leader were to try to move a nomination or piece of legislation by unanimous consent, that Senator would object on the Senate floor. 

There are lots of reasons why senators might put a hold on a bill.  They object to the bill and would like to be able to vote “no,” which is impossible when moving bills by unanimous consent (UC).  Maybe they’d like to offer an amendment.  Or, I know this sounds crazy, maybe they (or their staff) would like time to actually read the bill.

The rules change package does aim at ending “secret” holds, where the senator placing the hold is not publicly known.  Again speaking from my own experience of seven years as a Senate committee staffer and having helped passed dozens of bills by UC, I have never once had a problem of figuring out who was behind a hold.  In fact, most the time the Senate office in question would call me and let me know what their problem was.  The vast majority of the time we were able to address the issue and move forward.  Many holds only lasted a few hours.  Several offices, such as Senator Coburn’s, actually read every bill that was brought to the floor, and all they wanted was a little time to do so.  I can’t see how anyone would have a problem with that.

As to the secret nature of holds, I have yet to see a case where that knowledge didn’t become public.  The risk to making it public immediately is that every special interest involved in the bill would swarm upon whoever placed the hold.  And that is what removing the “secret” hold is really about: giving special interests further opportunities to pressure senators before they have the time to actually learn the issue and perhaps work out a compromise with their colleagues.

At its core, the hold is simply a courtesy between senators.  And courtesy is something I think the Senate needs more of, rather than less.  Of course, holds would not matter at all if we just made two simple changes:  no more moving bills/nominations by unanimous consent (have actual votes), and announce at least a week ahead of time which bills will be voted on and have the bill language publicly available.