June 22, 2018
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Chokehold on Democracy

A cornerstone of democracy is that each person has an equal vote. So the public should be outraged that a single senator can secretly bring legislation and nominations to a screeching halt in Washington.

They should be even more outraged that the Senate has repeatedly condemned — and even strongly voted against — this practice, yet it continues.

Last week, senators again had a chance to end the undemocratic process, but it ended in a web of unrelated amendments.

Under Senate rules, senators can place a hold on legislation or a nominee for six days without publicly stating a reason. The identity of the senator placing the hold is not made public during this time. Senators get around the six-day provision by working together to change the person requesting the hold.

Holds are most often used to block nominees to federal courts and government boards.

According to The Associated Press, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 leader, said there are 96 nominees waiting for a confirmation vote. There were 20 at a similar moment during George W. Bush’s administration, he told the AP.

The National Transportation Safety Administration, which is investigating last year’s spectacular landing of a plane on the Hudson River, is operating with three of its five members. One nominee has been on hold since December. Several assistant secretaries and ambassadors are also being held up.

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, sponsored an amendment to the financial reform bill that would have allowed senators to place a secret hold for only two days. After two days they must publish, in the Congressional Record, why they are blocking a nomination or bill. Sen. Susan Collins was a co-sponsor of the amendment.

The measure looked headed for certain passage last week when Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., introduced an amendment to the amendment to require the completion of a fence separating the southwestern U.S. from Mexico.

A spokesman for Sen. DeMint said the amendment was not an attempt to kill the secret holds legislation, but rather an effort to push the issue of border security.

Still, Sen. Wyden withdrew the amendment limiting holds. He should bring it up again.

Sen. Collins is part of another effort to stop secret holds. She and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts are the only Republicans to sign a letter to congressional leaders pledging not to use secret holds. Senators could still place holds, but they would need to publicly state the reason.

“While we deeply respect and appreciate the importance of tradition in this institution, we believe the practice of the secret hold has no rightful place in the Senate or in an open and transparent democracy,” says the letter, spearheaded by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and signed by 59 senators. All Democratic senators except Robert Byrd of West Virginia have signed the letter.

The Senate passed legislation restricting holds in 2007 — by a vote of 96-2 — but it has been ignored by many senators.

This shows that stricter standards are needed.

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