Reform of “Secret Holds” Derailed in Senate

05.17.10 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

A long-term, bipartisan effort to eliminate the Senate custom of using “secret holds” to anonymously block pending legislation or nominations was scuttled just as it was on the verge of approval last Thursday after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) attempted to insert an unrelated amendment at the last minute.

“I cannot recall another instance where the cause of open government took a beating… like the cause of open government took this afternoon,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who led the initiative, along with Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and others.  Their proposal would generally have required Senators to file a notice of intent whenever they had an objection to Senate proceedings.

“We did not win this afternoon because I think we got kneecapped,” said Sen. Wyden.  “I do not know how to describe it any other way.”

“I can tell you, I have never seen anything like this in my time in the Senate: one Senator coming in, at the last moment, with no notice, trying to derail the cause of open government,” an angry Sen. Wyden said May 13.

A spokesman for Sen. DeMint told the Washington Post that it was not his intent to block the reform of secret holds, but only to get a vote on his own measure, and that he too supported an end to secret holds.

The practice of secret holds is “one of the most pernicious, most antidemocratic practices in government,” said Sen. Wyden.

Only one Senator has publicly disagreed.  Sen. Robert Byrd (D-VA) said that in his view, “there are situations when it is appropriate and even important for Senators to raise a private objection to the immediate consideration of a matter with the leadership and to request a reasonable amount of time to try to have concerns addressed.”