Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 6, 2010

'GOOD GOVERNMENT DOESN'T INCLUDE THE WORD 'SECRET' IN THE PHRASE'.... As of this morning, there are 97 Obama administration nominees waiting for the Senate to give them a confirmation vote -- and 53 of them have been blocked by "secret holds." At a comparable point in Bush's presidency, only eight nominees were waiting for the Senate to act.

This is, to put it mildly, scandalous.

One man, no vote? That's the case in the Senate, where it takes just one peeved lawmaker to prevent a yes-or-no tally, often silently and anonymously.

That singular power can play havoc with nominations to the federal bench or an arts board, an ambassador or a general-in-waiting. It can block legislation to fund agencies or projects indefinitely.

These "holds," which frequently have nothing to do with the qualifications of the nominee, have only become more prevalent as the Senate becomes more partisan.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) is helping take the lead to curtail the practice, and I spoke to the senator this morning about her efforts.

As of today, McCaskill has collected 55 signatures from senators -- in less than a week's time -- who've endorsed a letter to the leadership against secret holds. All of these senators have vowed not to engage in secret holds, now or in the future, and want to see the practice come to an end. At this point, however, all 55 are from the Democratic caucus (53 Dems and both independents).

"Good government doesn't have the word 'secret' in the phrase," the senator told me. "It's not good for democracy."

As McCaskill sees it, the recent abuse of secret holds, which she described as "stupid" and "unprecedented," is problematic for a couple of reasons. The first is pragmatic -- nominees for "some pretty important positions" are blocked, generally from senators looking for "a backdoor way to work for the failure of the Obama administration." Senators block qualified nominees, the administration can't function as it should, so the hold becomes a partisan tool to encourage dysfunction.

The second has to do with democratic principles. "This is about transparency," McCaskill said. "We just heard all the complaints during the health care debate about 'back-room deals.' Well, let's bring some accountability here."

The senator emphasized that she's not trying to scrap all Senate holds, just the anonymous process that she believes has been "abused." In fact, she specifically pointed to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) for at least pursuing his holds -- of which there are many -- the way "he should," out in the open, "with his name on them."

Asked about the resistance she's faced, McCaskill said she's felt like she "fell down a rabbit hole." During one recent effort to bring nominees to the floor for a vote, Mitch McConnell said he objected --- on behalf of someone else he wouldn't name. "They're completely avoiding accountability," she told me.

McCaskill hopes to get several additional names on her letter, and sounded fairly optimistic about the effort. In the meantime, as early as next week, the Senate will likely vote a measure cosponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to an amendment to the Wall Street reform bill that would effectively end secret holds. McCaskill believes that will be a "very tough vote" for those senators who support the practice, because no one will want to "go on the record in support" of a tactic like this one.

Ideally, McCaskill would like to see the public get engaged on this. "People should write letters, asking, 'Why isn't your name on that letter?'"

Here's the letter on McCaskill's site. I'll keep you posted.

Update: Dave Weigel has more about this effort, including the perspectives of several Democratic senators who addressed the subject with reporters this morning.

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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Comments

"Good government doesn't have the word 'secret' in the phrase," the senator told me. "It's not good for democracy."

What about the secret ballot, eh?

Posted by: Grumpy on May 6, 2010 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

The Senator should be hitting harder. When speaking on the floor or on the record she should use words like "coward," "cowardly," "guts" and "courage."

Posted by: Dan on May 6, 2010 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

Guess what! They lose their secrecy when someone with some courage publishes their names. It is not difficult to do. You read them into the Congressional Record and your send press releases to all the media, corporate and independent. How hard is that? Is it against the rules? Tough S**t.
Nothing ever happened of a progressive nature that didn't involve breaking rules and risking penalties.
So, Sen McCaskill or someone with a spine, speak the names and publish them. Let them scream...They will anyway.

peace,
st john

Posted by: st john on May 6, 2010 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

The secret holds in the Senate have no purpose in good governance. They are just one more example of how the Senate is a broken institution which is more dangerous to America than it is good for it.

If the Senators will not adjust their arcane and anti-democratic rules and do it soon, then we should start to take action to simply remove the senate as a legislative body. It long ago ceased to be relevant to solving the problems America faces and has become a major part of those problems.

It is also a last bastion of aristocracy and aristocracy-by-wealth in what was intended to be a middle class nation without any formal aristocracy.

It's time to remove the Senate from governance. Maybe let it remain as an honorary body for senior political leaders after they have retired from active politics, but the idea that the Senate ever improved legislation coming out of the House and the White House is almost entirely fiction. They are the bastion of no speech and no action.

Posted by: Rick B on May 6, 2010 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

What kind of sissies are our Republican Senators?
I mean, TV Wrestlers are proud of THEIR holds, why can't these people be proud of theirs?
You could have:
the Coburn "Congressional Crusher,"
the Vetter "Diaper-Stripper-Ripper."
the Graham "Grin, Grind and Hold-em,"
the McCain "Maverick Mauler,"
the Lieberman "Cuacus-Schmaucus, I fooled a whole state and I'm on all the news talk shows and that's what's important."
I know, I know. The last one's a bit long.
How about the Lieberman "Sphincter Constricter."
If I were a Senator, I'd be damned proud of my "Gulag-Lockdown!"

Posted by: c u n d gulag on May 6, 2010 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

I really love the irony here. The United States Senate comprises 100 people who usually can't find a TV camera and microphone fast enough to suit their purposes but, at the same time, find it necessary to hold up nominations anonymously.

Posted by: Lifelong Dem on May 6, 2010 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans were FOR America before they were AGAINST her. Despicable.

Ronald

Posted by: Ronald on May 6, 2010 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Our elected representatives are elected to do our business by representing us on matters like presidential appointments. These holds are essentially preventing us from being represented. No taxation without representation, Republicans!

Posted by: Joel on May 6, 2010 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

c u n d gulag,

i know there's a lot to dislike when you're talking about senator joe, but he did sign the no secret holds pledge

Posted by: mudwall jackson on May 6, 2010 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

I have yet to see a single piece in the media describing accurately what is really going on with all these holds. What the true purpose or strategy being pursued by the Republican Party is here. It has very little to do with individual legislator's sensibilities and only indirectly ideology.

The last administration turned the federal government into a one stop self service customer care center for big business. It made all of the departments of the federal government subservient to business interests. It staffed them with ex employees of the businesses that were relevant to the cabinet departments as far down the ladder as possible. All the way down to formerly career positions. Where these departments formerly considered the American people to be their constituencies, under the Bush administration, they were reoriented to consider the relevant businesses to be their constituencies. Therefore, the Interior Department was there to serve the mining and petroleum industry. The FDA was there to serve the Drug industry etc. All of the political appointments were required to adhere to this philosophy and they enforced this philosophy on the carreer employees. They also burrowed in industry people into career positions.

Now, when the new administration has taken over, they would obviously like to change that culture. To change the notion that these departments are there solely to service industry as opposed to the general good. The population as a whole. But the longer it takes to staff up these positions, the longer you have to have them manner by acting managers from the old regime, the longer the old practices stay in place. And the old practices are very very lucrative for big businesses. The faster money is appropriated for programs by Congress under the old way of doing business, the faster it goes out the door in the form of contracts to well connected business cronys. Until these acting officials are replaced, these practices will continue.

These holds are a part of a foot dragging delaying tactic that is designed to sustain the old practices as long as possible and prevent change. You see it in Interior, in MMS, In Energy. Everywhere you look.

Posted by: SW on May 6, 2010 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder, how many holds were for positions within the Dept. of Interior and the MMS? Aren't they still trying to get someone to oversee airport security?

The case has to be made that this political game is costing us dearly.

Posted by: bdop4 on May 6, 2010 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

I guess no one "heard" me upthread, so I will repeat myself (with typos corrected):
"Guess what! They lose their secrecy when someone with some courage publishes their names. It is not difficult to do. You read them into the Congressional Record and you send press releases to all the media, corporate and independent. How hard is that? Is it against the rules? Tough S**t.
Nothing ever happened of a progressive nature that didn't involve breaking rules and risking penalties.
So, Sen. McCaskill or someone with a spine, speak the names and publish them. Let them scream...They will anyway.

peace,
st john

Posted by: st john on May 6, 2010 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

I second SW's cogent description of the situation. Well said.

Posted by: bdop4 on May 6, 2010 at 2:16 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with the concept that these holds are more designed to hurt the Obama Admin. I think if their constitutents KNEW their Senators were putting random holds on qualified people to extort concessons of one sort or another... that there would be Hell to Pay. Most Americans have an innate set of fainess... and this violates every part of that.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on May 6, 2010 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

OK, I'll try a different tack: does anyone know the names of the "secret senators?" And their specific holds?

Posted by: st john on May 6, 2010 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

It doesn't matter who the names are. That is a red herring. It is party policy. They will just take turns. It is about preventing change.

Posted by: SW on May 6, 2010 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

What hyprocrites you are. What about all the "secret" deals - commonly called bribes - that were done to get that piece of trash call health care reform (barely) passed. If it was such a good idea and so popular why did it take all of the cr*p that you demorats had to do to get it to squeak through. You guys make me sick.

Posted by: njpro on May 6, 2010 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

Let me be clear. The secrecy thing is a bonus. It makes it less painful. But they will do it anyway. It there is too much money at stake. It is worth the ridicule. They will just spread the burden out.

Posted by: SW on May 6, 2010 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

Oh Noes! Sick trolls! That's a pre-existing condition. Thank god for health insurance reform.

Posted by: SW on May 6, 2010 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

"What about the secret ballot, eh?" - Grumpy

Grumpy is a typical Canadian, for the rule in Canada is "The exception is the rule." In other words, it's nuts. For whenever someone says an obvious rule, some Canadian squelches the conversation with "what about...."

On the other hand, if I may be granted a rule, being surrounded with horses' asses has developed many good Canadian comedians.

Posted by: Bob M on May 6, 2010 at 2:41 PM | PERMALINK

mudwall jackson,
Yeah, I know. Sorry... It's just that hatin' on him feels so good, you want to stretch reality to fit your fiction.
Hey, FOX News does it 24/7/365.
As a liberal, I shouldn't.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on May 6, 2010 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

If McConnell wants to file an objection in the name of an anonymous Senator, tell him that the objection will be in his (McConnells) name. If he won't identify the anonymous Senator, assume there isn't one (kind of like anonymous sources), and make McConnell take responsibility for it.

I wonder how long he would want that responsibility? Then go ahead and publish the name of the Senator who is actually placing the hold.

Posted by: rwgate on May 6, 2010 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

Can you say "recess appointments," boys and girls?

The prez did it before, suffered no ill effects, and made the GOPers apopleptic. What could be better?

Posted by: efgoldman on May 6, 2010 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

Working for the failure of the Obama Administration is the same as working for the failure of America.

Posted by: Bonnie on May 6, 2010 at 5:33 PM | PERMALINK

" ...and made the GOPers apopleptic. What could be better?"
Posted by: efgoldman on May 6, 2010 at 4:58 PM

I apologize for calling you out on such a trivial thing, but may I humbly suggest that you doublecheck your motivations, and your phraseology?
One of the many things that we -- rightfully and righteously (not to say self-righteously) -- find fault with in the current crop of Publicans and Teabeggars is that a primary motivation for most of them (and the sole motivation for many) is reinforcement of tribal identity, and "other"-ing everyone who isn't One Of Them. The number of posts and comments that you'll find in righty sites making it clear that nothing gets them off like enraging the "LIEberals" is uncountable, and rapidly approaching the infinite.
(That they excoriate the Obama administration, and Congressional Dem's, for doing exactly as the CheneyBush Cabal, and Congressional Publicans, did before them, and rejecting positions and policies they'd previously championed the moment the Dem's adopt them, are just two of the many manifestations of this -- though obviously there are other, more powerful motivations behind those. I'll never be able to forget the delight with which they greeted the news that our country didn't get the Olympic nod. "Country First," indeed -- any country but our own, that is.)
We are better than that -- and rhetoric suggesting otherwise is unhelpful.
The motivations and aspirations I see reflected in the vast majority of lefty sites are not "making GOPers apoplectic" -- in fact they're just the opposite: we (most of us at least) want the cons to recognize that they've been conned, lied to, misled, manipulated, and exploited by the very same forces that are responsible for everything the cons claim to be upset over.
We want them to know the truth about what's happened to our country, our economy, our security, and our standing in the world -- and who's really to blame for it. We want them to know who indebted them and their grandchildren, redistributed their wealth (upwards), trashed the values of their pension plans and their homes, hollowed out our military, created more terrorists than we could ever capture or kill, and not just permitted, but invited, the worst mass-murder in our country's history -- and then invited the mass-murderer to walk scot-free from our very grasp.
And yes, I do recognize my own little bit of hypocrisy in this, given what I call the Teabeggars, Publicans, and cons -- but my excuses are that I use terminology that's descriptive, not just pejorative, and that I use identical diction when posting on sites that don't seem to draw too many cons, as I do on sites like this, HuffPo, etc, that are often rife with conservatrolls. It can't be about pissing them off if I do it when they're not around to read it...

Posted by: smartalek on May 8, 2010 at 6:23 PM | PERMALINK
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