Washington, D.C. — Today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calling on them, as part of upcoming Senate rules reform, to provide the Senate Select Committee on Ethics with the jurisdiction to investigate and discipline senators who violate the prohibition on secret holds. In December 2009, CREW asked the committee to discipline senators who violated the ban on secret holds and issue guidance to inform senators about the consequences of placing secret holds. In response, the ethics committee explained violations of Senate parliamentary procedure are “outside the limited jurisdiction of the Committee.”
Read CREW's letter to Senators Reid and McConnell
The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 requires senators to reveal when they are “intending to object to a proceeding,” commonly referred to as placing a hold on a nomination or a bill. Despite the adoption of additional rules to curb the “secret” aspect of the holds process in 2011, CREW’s research shows senators continue to use secret holds with impunity.
“The ban on secret holds is essentially meaningless,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “Thanks to glaring loopholes and a lack of enforcement mechanisms, senators know they can anonymously block consideration of legislation or nominations — for any reason, legitimate or not — without fear of repercussions. As a companion to filibuster reform, it is imperative for Senate leadership to end secret holds. In a democracy, our elected leaders must be accountable not just for their votes, but also for their efforts to obstruct votes.”
To determine whether senators have complied with the ban, CREW reviewed the Senate Calendar of Business from December 1, 2009 to January 1, 2013, and found only 20 instances of a “notice of intent to object” placed in the calendar — over half of which were entered by the two senators who have worked to eliminate secret holds, Sens. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Meanwhile, CREW easily identified more than a dozen bills and nominations that appear to have had secret holds placed on them, but for which no objections were placed in the Senate Calendar of Business. These examples include nominations for positions at critical agencies including the Treasury Department and the Office of Violence Against Women and even the nomination of Robert Ford to become ambassador to Syria. Secret holds have also held up aid to earthquake-stricken Haiti, funds to reimburse local police departments for buying bulletproof vests, and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.
“If senators are allowed to disregard Senate rules, it is not the rules that are the problem, but rather enforcement of them,” continued Ms. Sloan. “In addition to ending filibuster abuse, cracking down on secret holds would help restore public confidence in the ability of the Senate to do its job.”