In the odd inner workings of Congress, there’s something called a “legislative hold.” It gives any individual senator the power to stop a nominee or a bill— put a hold on them. The idea is to encourage negotiations between those for and against. But sometimes the Senator making the hold keeps his name secret. Senator Chuck Grassley tells why he’s been trying for a decade to stop the secrecy.
Sen. Grassley: So why do you put a hold on? Lot of times, people put a hold on because they want to negotiate something, or they want to use it as a lever to get something else. So I use holds, but I've always put a statement in the record of why I'm putting a hold on an individual nominee or a bill. So people know who it is, come and talk to Chuck Grassley and I'll tell you what the problems is I've got. And you can negotiate then, whatever you want to negotiate.
Sharyl: What is a secret hold?
Sen. Grassley: Well, a secret hold is when you put a hold on, you don't want anybody to know about it. So don't you think the public's business ought to be public? Well, if it's going to be secret, how's anybody know why you're holding it. Maybe they do it for a reason that's not a very good reason. So it's secret.
Some important secret holds have gotten a lot of attention over the years. One senator’s secret hold killed a new Whistleblower bill to protect federal employees reporting corruption. And an unnamed senator temporarily blocked a cost of living increase for disabled veterans and their survivors. With the names of the holding Senators kept anonymous, it’s impossible for other Senators know their reasoning or negotiate a compromise.
So in 2011, Senators Grassley and Ron Wyden successfully led a bipartisan effort to ban secret holds —starting in 2013. A new rule said that all Senators must disclose their names and reasoning in the Congressional record within two days of making a hold.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.): The fact is that this resolution deals with a sweeping, almost unparalleled power. If you want to exercise that extraordinary power, you ought to do it in the sunlight.
But Grassley says after all this time, Senators today are routinely ignoring the ban on secret holds.
Sen. Grassley: Eight years later, it happens every day that people put a hold on a bill or a nominee and don't put their statement in the public record. We need these rules enforced in the leadership of the Republican and Democratic Party ought to be enforcing these rules.
Grassley has gone so far as to chide the secret holders on the Senate floor.
Sen. Grassley: The rules of the senate require all senators that put a hold on a nomination or a bill within 2 days after doing that to put something in the record, and most Senators aren’t following that rule of the Senate. If you’ve got some disagreement about something and you put a secret hold on and somebody ought to sit down and wants to talk to you and see what’s wrong, how are they gonna know who it is?
Senators Grassley and Wyden have now issued a letter to colleagues reminding them they’re required to identify themselves if they hold up a nomination or a bill.
Sharyl: Why does that matter to the American public?
Sen. Grassley: It ought to matter to the American public because, number one, the public's business ought to be public. And when you're trying to pass legislation and it's not getting passed, and somebody's holding it up, and you don't even know who's holding it up, then really the public's business isn't public. Just people to sit down and talk to each other is a very necessary process of getting the United States functioning as a legislative deliberating body it has a reputation for being.
By the way, only four senators, all Republicans, originally voted to keep secret holds back in 2011.