Senate secrecy breeds corruption

Two amendments would shed some light on the legislative process

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Secrecy that hides public business from the public itself should be anathema in a constitutional republic. This is true whether the secrecy is a ploy to speed things up unnaturally or to slow things down unfairly. In different ways, Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Ron Wyden of Oregon are working to end the secrecy that abets corruption and fiscal incontinence. Their proposed amendments, perhaps with a tweak or two, ought to be approved.

Mr. Grassley and Mr. Wyden’s amendment to the massive financial regulations bill, S. 3217, would require that senators who use a “hold” to delay legislation or nominations must submit their objections into the Congressional Record so the public can know who is doing so - and, presumably, why.

With one slight correction, this change in Senate rules is desperately needed. Right now, a single senator can grind the whole Senate to a halt without having the courage or honesty to take responsibility. This system easily and frequently leads to abuses, whereby a senator pursues a secret grudge, while holding hostage both the public’s business and a nominee’s livelihood, by blocking him for weeks or even months from an important executive or judicial position.

It must be acknowledged that secret holds that are only temporary - merely used to solicit necessary information without airing dirty laundry or unfounded rumors - can be entirely defensible. Rather than eliminate secret holds entirely, the Grassley-Wyden amendment ought to put a more reasonable time limit on such maneuvers, after which the Congressional Record requirement should apply.

Meanwhile, Mr. Coburn and Mrs. McCaskill are offering a second-level amendment to the Grassley-Wyden amendment. Pushed most strongly by Mr. Coburn, it would make sure that senators, and the public they serve, actually have a chance to know what they are voting on. It would require that the full text of bills be posted online for at least 72 hours before a vote - and that each senator sign a consent form before a bill can be passed by an expedited procedure known as “unanimous consent.”

This amendment would make it far harder for senators to sneak self-serving provisions into bills in the dead of night. The so-called stimulus bill of February 2009, for example, contained a secret $1 billion for an “energy research” plant in President Obama’s home state of Illinois. Even worse, the Senate on March 22 of this year passed an unemployment-insurance extension, along with several other provisions, even though the actual text of the bill was still not available at the time of the vote. Forget 72 hours; this bill wasn’t even available for seven minutes.

These shenanigans subvert the republic. The four reformist senators are right to try to stop them, by letting the sun shine in.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Frank Perley

Frank Perley

Frank Perley is senior editor for opinion. Joining the newspaper at its inception in 1982, he served as a reporter covering Fairfax County, Va., and Prince George’s County, Md., and as an assistant editor for the national news desk. For the past 18 years, he served on the staff for opinion, where he has written articles, editorials and book reviews. ...

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