President Obama's nominees for federal courts and executive agencies have, for the most part, sailed through committee hearings, only to then hit a dead end in the Senate, where lawmakers are able to block them — and do so anonymously.
Democrats are now demanding a ban on this practice of secret holds.
Here, a list of President Obama's nominees stuck in the Senate. As of June 23, senators had holds on 69 executive and judicial nominations, most of them anonymous.
Three years ago, lawmakers tried a different tactic at ending secret holds. The Senate passed a law that stipulated that if there were an anonymous objection to bringing up either a bill or a nomination, the name of the senator who was objecting had to be published in the Congressional Record within six days.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) decided to use that law to try to reveal which senators had put secret holds on dozens of President Obama's choices. So two weeks ago, she went to the Senate floor, and one by one, demanded consideration of 80 stalled nominees.
But Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) objected to each and every nominee. Kyl said he was doing so just to be sure no other senator had objections; he's one of 13 Republicans who voted against the measure requiring disclosure of secret holds.
Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, who has tried for years to end secret holds, spoke on the Senate floor the following day.
"Let me just say that if any of my colleagues have holds on either side of the aisle, they ought to have the guts to go public, and to go public the minute that they put the hold on, not like this mysterious way that it's done now, which really amounts to nothing," Grassley said.
Last week, McCaskill returned to the Senate chamber to demand confirmation votes on two Obama nominees for the National Transportation Safety Board. And just as he had a week earlier, Kyl, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, objected.
"I have no objection to these two people, so I am not holding them. I am objecting on behalf of the Republican leadership in order to enable the two leaders to clear both of these nominees — that is to make sure there is no objection on either side, so that they can both go forward," Kyl said.
McCaskill replied that the Republican and Democratic leaders had already conferred, and it was clear no Democrats objected to the nominations. She said Republicans were using a "stall and block" tactic, and challenged them to go public.
"This is called stall and block, stall and block, stall and block, stall and block — and fine, but own it!" McCaskill said. "If you're gonna stall and block, let's see who you are."
Last Friday was the deadline for disclosing the names of the senators who'd put secret holds on the dozens of nominees McCaskill tried to get confirmed. But not one of those names ever got printed in the Congressional Record. That's because the holders secretly pass the baton to new unnamed holders before the end of the six-day publication deadline.
On Wednesday, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn became the first Republican senator to reveal secret holds he's placed on six nominees. McCaskill, in the meantime, has gotten 51 Democrats to sign a letter to both leaders demanding that secret holds be abolished. Asked Tuesday about those holds, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called them an issue of individual senators' rights.
"We've always had a challenging environment in the Senate with regard to the confirmation of executive branch appointments. This administration's been treated about the same as the previous administrations in terms of the pace of confirmations," McConnell said.
Congressional expert Ross Baker of Rutgers University says things are in fact far worse than they've ever been. But he's skeptical that the Senate can get rid of secret holds.
"It's difficult to police something when you really aren't able to come up with any hard evidence to enforce it, and that's what makes the secret hold so diabolically difficult to deal with," Baker says.
In a sign of progress, on Wednesday secret holds on three district court nominees were lifted; two were approved unanimously; the third, approved 96-1.