Secret Holds in the US Senate


NPR had a story this morning regarding the secret hold process in the US Senate:  Senators Fed Up With Secret Blocks On Nominees.

This Memorial Day, 120 of Obama’s nominees awaited confirmation, and most were held up anonymously. The nominees who have gotten confirmed have had to wait on average more than 100 days after winning approval in committee.

Forget, for a moment, the partisan affiliation of the President and consider the situation:  a rather large number of jobs in the United States government are not being done because of the ability of individual Senators to place holds on nominees and to do so at no political cost whatsoever, as the holds in question are secret.

Almost all of those nominations have been stalled by unnamed Republican senators using what’s known as the "secret hold." The practice, which has been around a long time, is essentially an anonymous threat to filibuster any attempt to vote on a bill or nomination.

Again, forget the parties involved and whatever point-scoring one may wish to engage in and consider if this is any way to run an organization, let alone the US government.

First, there is no compelling reason to give one Senator the power to block a nominee.  There is nothing in the Constitution, the minds of the Founders, basic democratic theory, or wherever else one likes to look for guidance on these questions that supports such a position.  It is even dubious to state that the Senate rules allowing the filibuster logically extent to holds, let alone secret ones.

Second, if a politician feels that a given nominee ought to be blocked, then said politician ought to have the courage of their convictions and build a coalition to actually stop the nominee.  Or, at a minimum, engage in a real filibuster in the hope of convincing the Senate and the public that the nominee ought to be stopped.

Third, if the job is actually not worth filling, work to get rid of it.

Some previous posts on holds (of the non-secret type):

Photo source:  the author.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. DC Loser says:

    Double Secret Probation?

  2. Trumwill says:

    I support getting rid of anonymous holds and reforming some other parliamentary procedures under one condition: they do not take effect until after the next election. For filibuster/cloture rules, that would be 2010. For appointments, 2012. Otherwise, it’s impossible to forget who is in charge at any particular time. It becomes like Massachusetts senate vacancy procedures where what is fair is determined primarily by what benefits your side.

    If these are things that must be changed, then we should be able to agree to change them in a way that does not immediately and obviously favor one side or the other.