Why All Americans Should Thank Sen. Shelby

Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Shelby, and 99 other U.S. senators should be furious at him.

Late last week, the senior Republican from Alabama placed a blanket hold on 70 nominations pending before the Senate. He was not objecting to their qualifications or personal profiles, or even discussing them.

His problem had to do with a couple of government contracts he wants to see benefit his home state. The contracts have not been resolved in the direction the senator prefers, and he felt he was getting stiffed.

Of course, once he had made a few headlines with his shotgun-hold tactic, he was willing to let most of his hostages loose. Now he's just holding a handful of appointments he sees as relevant to his home-state focus.

But the damage just may have been done.

People who watch the Senate regularly know that holds are as common as colds. Senators use them to pressure the administration on any number of matters, from nuclear policy to petty personnel squabbles.

Most of the time, only hardcore Hill mavens notice. But with his one act of singular senatorial arrogance, Shelby overstepped the usual bounds of caution. This time, the shenanigans went viral, and more than a few people were alarmed.

That's why the rest of the Senate should be short of breath over this. Because if Shelby gets noticed with this extreme version of business as usual, other senators conducting similar hijackings on a smaller scale may get noticed, too.

What is this mysterious power to place a hold on appointments and bills? How is it that one senator could delay or even cancel the filling of these jobs?

The hold is simply a senator's way of notifying the majority leader that he or she intends to use the right to extended debate against that name or bill. It is an implicit threat to filibuster, in a time when such threats are as effective as filibusters themselves ever were.

The holding senator may have an issue pertaining to the nominee or the bill at hand. Or there may be something else on the senator's mind.

In this case, Shelby's communications director said, the issue was the coddling of terrorists. He then explained that the Obama administration had yet to resolve a certain contract for the building of tanker planes to refuel U.S. warplanes in midflight, a years-long battle between two defense consortia on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

And the Obama administration has not yet let a contract for a lab that will analyze forensic evidence from bomb-making materials found in Iraq and Afghanistan. The communication from the senator's office suggested this shows a lack of commitment to anti-terrorism.

It neglected to mention that both these contracts involve, or might involve, large business interests in the state of Alabama.

This is what some call constituent service. Others call it earmarking, the practice of steering specific outlays in spending bills to benefit preselected parties. Still others call this plain and simple pork barrel politics, the pursuit of government largess benefiting one's friends and constituents and campaign supporters.

Shelby was exercising his right to shut the appointment process down because he did not get what he wanted in the most recent round of appropriations for the Department of Defense.

So why should Americans be grateful?

They should be grateful to the senator for being so bold as to be blatant, so outspoken as to be outrageous. Most of his colleagues would be more subtle about manipulating Senate rules, so as to keep this ability down below the radar of the media and the voting public.

A blanket hold on 70 nominees ought to be embarrassing to senators such as John McCain, senior Republican from Arizona, who ran for president twice emphasizing his detestation of earmarks. How can McCain, and others like him, defend the Shelby-style brandishing of the hold-filibuster to protect earmarking?

That's a debate the Republican minority ought to be having in its conference meetings, where it contemplates how to use its filibuster power now that it has 41 votes to make it stick.

But Democrats need to look in the mirror. One big reason the majority party has not been able to act like one in the Senate is its unwillingness to tackle the customs and traditions that make every senator a king or queen. Every senator has an interest in preserving that kind of individual power.

But what about the public interest, or the national interest? Do these privileges serve the rest of us?

If one senator can hold sway over so much of the nation's business simply by declaring himself willing to be unreasonable, then reasonable people have cause to re-examine the institution of the Senate itself.

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