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March 29, 2006
Senate Ends Anonymous Holds, Holds Off On Other Reform

In a little-noticed action yesterday, the Senate ended the much-abused practice of anonymous "holds" on legislation, a parliamentary trick by members that allow them to stop progress on legislation without allowing a vote. It came as part of an overall reform effort that will fall short in other areas, but this change may hold real promise:

The Senate on Tuesday voted to strip its members of the power to secretly place a "hold" on legislation they oppose, a parliamentary tool that has allowed a single senator to derail bills or nominations while leaving no fingerprints. ...

The proposal to do away with the anonymous holds, used by senators to signal to Senate leaders their objection to legislation, won overwhelming support on a vote of 84 to 13.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who cosponsored the amendment, argued that requiring disclosure of a senator relying on the hold procedure would enable negotiations to occur on the dispute.

More than that, an end to the anonymous hold means that Senators will now be held accountable for their obstructionism. An anonymous act in a public debate suggests either a lack of testicular fortitude for one's position, or some sort of corruption in play. In either case, as both Grassley and Wyden note, one cannot engage in negotiation when the aggrieved party will not identify himself, essentially giving each Senator veto power over any bill that comes to the Senate floor.

Unfortunately, the rest of the bill looks like more warmed-over platitudes towards reform than the real item. The Senate soundly rejected a new independent ethics office and has moved to place most of the burden for reform on the lobbyists rather than themselves. The Senate plan will not ban the travel that lobbyists fund despite that being one of the key complaints in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Most interestingly, limits on earmarks have been eliminated from the bill:

McCain complained that some key amendments are being laid aside as a result of the vote. In particular, he said he regretted that amendments that would limit earmarks -- narrowly focused appropriations -- and that would, in effect, restrict lawmakers' use of chartered jets would not be voted on as part of the bill.

The legislation as it stands would bar lawmakers from accepting meals and gifts, including sports tickets, from registered lobbyists, and would increase the disclosure that lobbyists must make to the public.

The Senate apparently does not see the corrosive connection between earmarks and lobbyist money. If one truly wants to reform politics, then the only way to do that is to remove the individual ability to direct federal money towards pet projects. Without that kind of power, politicians have to reach consensus on all expenditures, and lobbyists can't simply buy one politician to get their clients undeserved chunks of our tax money. That simple mechanism for reform should be apparent to everyone, even within the Beltway. Its exclusion from the reform debate shows that both sides lack any real appetite to change how business gets conducted on Capitol Hill.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 29, 2006 7:08 AM

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