Watchdog Group Calls for Senate Ethics Committee to Review “Secret Holds“

Watchdog Group Calls for Senate Ethics Committee to Review "Secret Holds"

Government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) on Wednesday asked the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to investigate senators’ failure to abide by a provision in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA).

The act, enacted in September 2007, bans the use of “secret holds,” a parliamentary maneuver that’s often used to stall or stop legislation or nominations. CREW urged the committee to discipline senators who have violated the ban and to issue guidance on the matter for senators’ future conduct.

CREW made its recommendations in a letter sent from CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. HLOGA calls for senators to reveal when they are “intending to object to a proceeding,” or to make a “hold.”

Senators may use a hold to block votes that they don’t want to make, to stall legislation they oppose or to use as a bargaining tactic to get concessions from leadership or the opposition.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), for instance, announced on Wednesday that he would put a hold on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s nomination by President Obama for a second term.

The hold has been used in the Senate since the mid-19th century and became official in 1914, but didn’t rise in prominence until the 1960’s. Although there have been efforts to decrease the use of holds, Sloan wrote that enactment of section 512 of HLOGA is the first time the Senate agreed to reform the “secret” aspect of the hold process.

HLOGA did not, however, create any mechanisms to enforce the ban, and senators have continued to use secret holds, according to CREW.

To determine whether senators have complied with the ban, CREW conducted a day-by-day review of the Senate Calendar of Business dating from the law’s passage in 2007 through Wednesday. Over this two-year period, CREW found only two bills that had “a notice of intent to object” placed in the calendar.

During the same time, though, CREW discovered many bills and nominations that appeared to have had secret holds placed on them, but no corresponding objections were placed in the calendar and no senator publicly announced a hold.

A veterans health care bill and the confirmation of Hilda Solis as President Obama’s labor secretary were among the many bills and nominations that have been delayed by use of secret holds. In addition, two of President Obama’s science-related nominees’ confirmations allegedly were held by a senator seeking leverage against the administration’s Cuba policy.

In her letter, Sloan asked the ethics committee to consider whether senators’ failure to comply with a ban adopted just two years ago as part of an ethics overhaul is misconduct that reflects upon the Senate. CREW also asked the committee to provide guidance on how the provision should influence senators’ conduct in the future.

The act is “intended to protect the integrity and reputation of the Senate as a whole,” Sloan wrote. It was “designed to promote ethics and transparency, yet from nearly the moment of enactment, the limitation of the use of secret holds has been disregarded by senators of both parties. Having adopted this limitation, however, the Senate ought to be bound by it.”

Failing to abide by it doesn’t make the Senate look credible, Sloan said.

“Senators claimed HLOGA would change the way business is conducted in Washington,” Sloan said. “But the so-called ban on secret holds was nothing more than an empty promise.”

Sloan concluded, “If the ban is really as meaningless as it seems, the ethics committee should admit it, and the Senate should repeal it. As shocking a notion as it may be, Americans have a right to expect senators – just like regular folks – will follow the rules.”