Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Secret Holds


Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill) and Tom Coburn, (R-Okla), as unlikely a pair to team on legislation as you might find, recently put forward a bill that would create a database of information describing federal spending on government contracts, loans, grants and other spending. Sounds good doesnÂ’t it? Finally, some transparency in the system and a mechanism that would allow those paying for the government (you and me) to see where our money is going. The measure passed both committees it was presented to and was on track to have a floor vote prior to the August recess.

So, what happened?

The legislation never got to the floor for a vote. It is dead as a doornail.

An unidentified senator placed a hold on the bill, effectively killing any chance of it getting to the floor for a vote. Not only did the senator place the hold, it is a "secret hold", established in violation of senate policy established by Trent Lott and Tom Daschle way back in 1998 essentially requiring anyone wanting to put a hold on legislation must inform the committee considering the matter. Holds have been used for decades, and originally, it was considered as a courtesy for a senator who may be otherwise unable to come to the Senate to review and consider the bill. It was supposed to be temporary. However, the history of this arcane procedure has allowed senators from both sides of the aisle to kill legislation they didn't like.

Rather than let the legislative process work as designed, the internal rules set up by the Senate on matters like legislative holds, filibusters, cloture votes, etc. have created a little world where the Senate can, with little transparency do whatever it pleases with respect to the development and passage of legislation. It's worked well, because the general public doesn't have the time nor inclination to bone up on senate procedure and then take their elective representatives to task for actions such as legislative holds.

If however, the general public knew about this (If the bloody news media would publish reports on this rather than the always exciting JonBenet case) they would be outraged. I think public opinion is typically on the side of full-disclosure. Certainly, exposure of these types of actions would have a chilling effect on them. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said:

Sunlight is the best disinfectant


It's high time we as a public demanded better behavior from our representatives. This November, let's send a clear message to the club in Washington that we are tired of the little tricks like secret holds. What's required is a promise from any candidate for Senate running in November that they will join Chuck Grassley and Ron Wyden (two senators who have been out front on attempting to eliminate the notion of secret holds altogether) in getting rid of this spurious procedure. Senators who support this procedure should be voted out of office.

If you are concerned or even interested on where the government spends our money, then this should motivate you to write your Senator and express yourdisappointmentt in the fact the legislation was killed. It is our government, not theirs and I'd like more visibility into how they are spending my money. I'd also like more accountability in the Senate. Senators, if you want to put a hold on legislation, then fine. But you had better have the fortitude to stand up and explain why and not hide behind some ridiculous procedure to save your anonymity.

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