How the Senate Really Works


Via Neoperspectives comes this fascinating "rest of the story" (as Paul Harvey might say) from Roll Call on the Outed Secret Holder, Sen. Ted Stevens. Stevens, of course, is the answer to the question, "Who has put a secret hold to prevent a vote on the bill proprosed by Sen. Tom Coburn and Sen. Barack Obama to create on online, searchable database tracking some $2.5 trillion worth of government spending, whether it’s via congressional earmark, government contract, grant or aid?" Back on June 23, 2005, Roll Call noted a different member of the Senate was using secret holds to quash legislation:

Senators, take heed: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) may have a "hold" on your bill. The freshman is using his power as a Senator to put a hold – or secret filibuster threat – on any bill he believes would create a new spending program, whether it is included in an appropriations bill or an authorizing bill. That means that many a Senator’s home-state pet project could be held up indefinitely by a man known for sticking to his guns, even to the point of making enemies. "I don’t think we ought to be passing new legislation, spending new money when we can’t pay for what we’re doing today, and we’re not willing to cut what we’re doing today," said Coburn in a recent interview.

One of those heed-taking senators was none other than Ted Stevens. The article notes that there were four bills with programs requiring new spending that it was believed Coburn might have used a secret hold to block.

…Coburn did not acknowledge putting holds on all four bills, but he did admit to putting a hold on one of Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens’ (R-Alaska) ocean research bills. "It’s not about Ted Stevens," Coburn said. "It’s about, if we’re going to spend new money then we ought to be able to say, ‘Here’s where we’ll get the money to pay for this,’ or we ought not to be doing this."

Is it possible Alaska’s senior Senator decided it was about Ted Stevens after all? If putting the hold on the Coburn-Obama bill was Stevens’ tit-for-tat means of annoying Coburn (and I’m not saying it was), I think it might have backfired. It’s also interesting to note that Coburn has no problem with using a secret hold:

Hart said Coburn did not want to reveal the number of holds or the specific bills he may be delaying in the Senate at any one time. "He thinks he can be more effective in preventing those bills from moving forward if he does it privately rather than if he did it publicly," Hart said. "For every one he [announces] publicly, there may be 10 he does privately."

I don’t have an opinion either way on the spending bills mentioned in the article, but I find secret holds troubling regardless of who puts them on whatever bill. We end up with a Senate that operates in backrooms, where members scratch each other’s backs–I’ll lift my hold if you lift yours–with little accountability for their actions. Stevens will get a black eye for his hold, deservedly, but Coburn’s use of the same tactic doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Still, the highlight (or lowlight) of the article is provided by the unembarassable Sen. Trent Lott:

Lott said he wasn’t aware of Coburn’s plan to hold up myriad bills, but said Coburn is "genuinely and legitimately concerned about the size of the deficit." Still, during his more than 30 years in Congress, Lott said he has learned something about how to keep the likes of Coburn from stopping his pet projects from becoming law. "The way I do it is, I fold them into bills where you can’t find it," Lott said. "I’ve been around here long enough to know how to bury it."

Hat tip to Gary Bass from OMB Watch for pointing this out.