- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006


The Senate is by design a cumbersome place to do business. Any one of the 100 senators can gum up the works, and they often do — without even uttering a word.

Welcome to the world of the Senate “hold,” a first cousin of the better-known filibuster. It’s where a simple threat by a single senator to stall ad nauseam — at least until 60 senators declare enough — can bottle up a nomination or popular bill for months. A fax or letter is all that is needed.

“If you walked down any street in the country and asked people what a secret hold was, my guess is they might think it was a hair spray,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. “But they wouldn’t have much of an idea that it is arguably one of the most powerful tools that an elected official has.”

It’s so easy that at any given time, hundreds of such holds are in effect.

To some, holds are proof the system is broken. Any senator who lodges one can do it anonymously, effectively becoming the secret assassin of a bill or nomination.

“The current use of holds is the most corrosive thing going on in the Senate right now,” said Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.

Mr. Lott noted that technically, a hold is only a request from a senator to the party leader to be notified when a particular bill comes up. In real terms, “that’s the same as shooting it in the head with a bullet,” he said.

Other senators, however, say holds are useful in forcing negotiations and compromise that, in the end, produce better laws.

“From a leadership standpoint, holds allow you to systematically put people in a room within 24 hours of an objection and at the same time protect that bills don’t go flying through here at night,” said Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican.

Mr. Wyden and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, have been on a decadelong fight to make senators who place holds identify themselves. They won an 84-13 vote this year to end the practice of secret holds, but the victory came during debate on an ethics bill that now stands no chance of being enacted.

Holds are effective because so much of the Senate’s work is done through unanimous, bipartisan agreements to structure debates or to pass bills. All it takes is for one senator to object to such “unanimous consent” to stall a bill or nominee.

Senators, however, rarely have to troop to the floor to voice their objections. Instead, they notify the party cloakroom that they are lodging a hold and rely on the party leaders to enforce it.

The practice drew public attention last month when Internet bloggers became outraged that a few senators anonymously blocked a bill that would create a Google-like database for tracking government spending on grants and contracts.

Irate bloggers began calling every Senate office in an effort to try to find the culprit. Eventually, the bloggers bagged their prey — Sens. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, and Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat.



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