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Published: Saturday, 6/12/2010

Secret senators

The practice of U.S. senators anonymously putting "secret holds" on presidential nominations is an example of the raw sewage in Washington politics that disgusts Americans.

The full Senate plays an "advise and consent" role in voting to approve or reject presidential nominations. Any individual senator can obstruct the confirmation process indefinitely by placing a hold on appointment, which acts essentially as a threat to filibuster the nomination.

When the Senate began its Memorial Day recess, 120 of President Obama's nominations to senior posts were pending. Most were put off by a secret hold.

Both parties have played this cynical game, but at a comparable point in the Bush administration only 13 nominations were held up anonymously.

Although Senate rules, in principle, require that the placer of the hold be identified, senators get around that by putting on a hold for a colleague. That maintains the anonymity of the person seeking to block the appointment.

Senators often place holds on nominees not because they object to the appointment, but rather to use a hold to trade votes with other senators or to leverage a project or contract from the administration for their state.

What's worse, lobbyists sometimes get into the picture. If a lobbyist decides that his special interest would not be served well by a nominee, who may have been appointed to a regulatory post, he may ask a senator for a hold on the nomination and reinforce the request with a political contribution.

Fortunately, some senators are frustrated by the situation and are trying to reform the rules. Sens. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) and Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), in particular, are trying to bring secret holds into the daylight.

Mr. Grassley is cosponsoring a measure with Sen. Ron Wyden (R., Ore.) that would reveal the names of secret holders within two days.

Senator McCaskill is circulating a petition, so far with 64 senators' signatures, to ban secret holds. She needs 67 to change the rules.

The Senate should get rid of this practice.

It is clearly contrary to government efficiency and to honest dealing on Capitol Hill.

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