Senate choke-hold

Norman Ornstein

May 26, 1993|By Norman Ornstein

THE "hold" -- the power of any senator to block a vote on a bill or a nomination for any reason -- may be the purest example of unnecessary congressional power run amok.

For weeks, Sen. Bill Cohen, Republican of Maine, put a hold on every White House appointment to the agriculture department until he obtained federal aid for Maine potato farmers last week.

The Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, has a hold on the nomination of George Weise to be customs commissioner until the Customs Service agrees to give a career job to a Dole protege.

Sen. Hank Brown, Republican of Colorado, has a hold on another administration nominee until he gets assurances that a water project in his state will get funding.

Several conservative senators have held up the nomination of Leslie Samuels to be assistant treasury secretary for tax policy until the department agrees to state with more precision how changes in tax policy may affect specific income groups.

These examples barely scratch the surface; many other holds -- put on by senators of both parties -- are in place that we don't know about because they are usually anonymous and can be indefinite. Meanwhile, the new administration operates without many of its key players in place, held hostage to the capricious blackmail of senators.

The hold is not granted by any Senate rule; it is an unofficial privilege that has been honored for more than a century.

Senators traditionally used the device for brief periods -- a week or two -- and sparingly and openly, to get up to speed on a subject or to marshal votes. But because of today's "I, Me, Mine" outlook of the individuals and the weakness of Senate leaders, holds are now rampant.

Nominations and bills are held up for capricious reasons and nominees get caught in the middle of disputes in which they have no part. The delays carry no reprobation or evident cost; they are usually imposed anonymously and are rarely reported in the news media.

In this climate, every senator has an overwhelming temptation. True, one would be foolish not to use the hold if all your colleagues are. This tendency detracts further from the image of a legislative body that seemingly cannot get anything done. Most senators are uneasy about this; their attitude is, "Stop us before we kill again."

It is time to do just that. The majority leader, George Mitchell of Maine, simply has to announce that holds will no longer be recognized. But he is understandably reluctant to do so without a mandate from his 99 colleagues.

The Republican and Democratic caucuses should pass resolutions calling for sharp changes in the application of the custom. All holds should be announced publicly -- what or who is being held, and who is doing it -- and should not apply for more than two weeks.

There is a place for reasonable, deliberative delay in the Senate, and for deference to the prerogatives of its members. But there is no place for the hold as currently practiced.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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