Last Wednesday, Harry Reid added to the Senate calendar Claire McCaskill’s legislative baby, the McCaskill-Wyden-Grassley bill that would put an end to secret holds, which allow a senator to unilaterally stop legislation without identifying him or herself. Claire McCaskill claims she has rounded up 68 votes for the bill which seems to guarantee that it will pass.
While this will be a real feather in McCaskill’s cap if it comes to pass and is certainly worthy legislation, since nobody – or at least nobody who is serious – can deny that the more we know, the better off we are, it is, in terms of the Senate’s procedural malfunctions, pretty small potatoes. Numerous commentators (see here, here and here) have noted that the problem is not secret holds, but too many holds used as a tool for partisan obstruction, which, as Jonathan Bernstein notes, constitues an actual abuse of Senate rules.
There is little evidence that making holds public will do much to fix that problem. If you really think that forcing these arrogant obstructionists to put their name to a hold will shame them, then you haven’t been paying attention to their outrageous behavior for the last two years. When it comes time to stand up for the de facto GOP negative hegemony, you can bet they’ll be right where they’re needed. There’s lots to be said for Bernstein’s preferred remedy:
Rather than make Senators explain themselves and have the Majority Leader judge which holds are legitimate and which are not, the Democrats should play hardball: they should let the Republicans know that unless the total number of holds on nominations shrinks dramatically, the Dems will start calling nominations up anyway, hold or not, and force the GOP to find 41 votes against considering them.
And if the Republicans can muster 41 votes, then we come to the issue of reforming the filibuster, which would fix this and lots of other problems. The Senate could change the filibuster rules on the first day of the new session, January 2011, right after the midterms. Of course, McCaskill has lately been been one of the Democrats voting with Republicans to uphold their filibusters – so do you think her concern about making things work might extend to doing something that would really help fix the broken Senate – where, as the new saying goes, legislation comes to die and the will of the majority is routinely flouted?