New York Sen. Charles Schumer may be a Democrat, but as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, he struck a bipartisan note as he gaveled in Wednesday's hearing on ending secret holds.
"We're not trying to put blame on one party or the other. We're trying to deal with a problem that has brought us close to gridlock," he said.
Not that the Senate hasn't tried before to end secret holds, an obscure tradition that is essentially an anonymous threat to filibuster executive and judicial nominations. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden has been trying to end the practice for more than a dozen years, and, as he told his colleagues at the hearing, just because senators voted earlier to do so does not mean the holds went away.
Here, a list of President Obama's 69 executive and judicial nominations on hold — mostly anonymously — as of June 23.
"It was an incredible power that senators have picked up. It's never been written down anywhere, the history of these holds. There's the hostage hold, the rolling hold, the Mae-West-come-up-and-see-me-sometime hold," Wyden said. "The Senate has as many versions of holds as pro wrestling."
Wyden's co-sponsor on several bills proposing to curb secret holds is Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley:
"What I object to is not the use of holds, because I do that myself, but the word 'secret' in secret holds," Grassley said. "If a senator has a legitimate reason to object to proceedings to a bill or a nominee, then he ought to have the guts to say so publicly."
Grassley and Wyden earlier passed legislation giving senators six days to publicly claim secret holds. They now want to shrink that window to just two days. But Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill says even a two-day grace period is too much:
"The problem is the enforcement. That's where the rub is," McCaskill said. "That's where senators want to avoid those uncomfortable moments that they are going to be called on the carpet and enforced to name who they are holding and why."
Missouri Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill is leading a drive to do away with secret holds altogether.
Missouri Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill is leading a drive to do away with secret holds altogether. Charles Dharapak/AP
McCaskill's leading a drive to do away with secret holds altogether. She's gathered 67 signatures — 10 of them from Republicans — on a letter to Senate leaders. The letter promises not to use such holds and says senators will even try to do away with them. You need 67 senators to change the rules of the Senate, so McCaskill's confident that's now possible. She points to the fact that on Tuesday, Republican leader Mitch McConnell agreed to let 64 stalled nominations get confirmed by voice vote.
"It's been a long time since we've seen that kind of movement on the nominations calendar. I don't know exactly why it happened, but I have a feeling it might be that the storm clouds are gathering and the American people are beginning to learn about some of the bad habits around here, and at the top of that list are secret holds," McCaskill said.
Ending secret holds, though, may not be enough to avoid the pileup of nominations in the Senate. That's what the panel heard from presidential appointments expert Calvin Mackenzie of Colby College.
"President Obama's appointees have been confirmed more slowly than any of his predecessors. Why is this? Well first, there are too many appointees and too many hearings," he said. "For the first 130 years of our history, there were no confirmation hearings at all. Now we hold them for even the lowest-ranking nominees in all agencies."
Schumer pointed out another potential pitfall should secret holds be abolished.
"You could end up with the tradition that the majority or minority leader would just put their name all the time, and then there is an argument, well, the opprobrium that would attach to a minority or majority leader who just blocked everything might discourage it. I'm not so sure that is true," Schumer said.
Still, with Majority Leader Harry Reid on board for ending secret holds, their days may be numbered.