Ending Secret Holds in the Senate

04.03.06 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Senate voted last week to end the practice of secret “holds” by which a Senator may anonymously block the consideration of pending legislation. The proposal, advanced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), would still permit Senators to object to legislation, but they could not do so anonymously.

“What is unjust about the process of secret holds is that it prevents a Senator from being held accountable when it comes to conducting the people’s business,” said Sen. Wyden. “It’s time to force these objections out of the shadows and into the sunshine.”

Last year, a secret hold was used to block the FY 2006 Intelligence Authorization Act from coming to the Senate floor, and for the first time in three decades the annual Authorization Act was not passed.

“I will tell the Senator who is holding that important intelligence bill,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) in a somewhat bizarre speech on the Senate floor last week. “It is the two Senators from Massachusetts. Senators Kennedy and Kerry have objected to considering the bill because they want to offer amendments.”

That’s not true, Senators Kennedy and Kerry replied. The Senators noted that their amendments had been cleared for consideration, and that there were no objections on the Democratic side.

“Apparently, to prevent debate on this very important issue, a Republican Senator is willing to let the whole intelligence bill fail,” said Sen. Kennedy. “That’s an outrage.”

The Wyden-Grassley amendment to prohibit secret holds passed the Senate on March 28 by a vote of 84-13. All of the 13 no votes were cast by Republicans.

Now that the amendment has passed, will the 2006 Intelligence Authorization Act finally be brought to the Senate floor? Probably not.

“I have little faith in SSCI’s [the Senate Intelligence Committee] ability to produce any legislation, regardless of the circumstances,” said one Democratic congressional expert. But in any case, work on the 2007 Intelligence Authorization bill has already commenced. And the Wyden-Grassley measure is not yet law, the congressional official noted.

The Wyden-Grassley amendment was offered as part of the Lobbying Reform bill that passed the Senate last week. Some recent Congressional Research Service reports on lobbying reform include the following:

“Lobbying, Ethics and Related Procedural Reforms: Comparison of Current Provisions of S. 2349 and H.R. 4975,” March 23, 2006.

“Lobbying and Related Reform Proposals: Consideration of Selected Measures,” 109th Congress, updated March 23, 2006.

“Lobbying Disclosure and Ethics Proposals Related to Lobbying Introduced in the 109th Congress: A Comparative Analysis,” updated March 23, 2006.

“Lobbying Reform: Background and Legislative Proposals,” 109th Congress, updated March 23, 2006.

And, unrelated but for good measure, “Taiwan: Major U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990,” updated March 21, 2006.