Ilona Nickels
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Accountability of Elected Officials
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Chaplains in the U.S. Congress
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Lame Duck Congress: Attendance and Voting
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Conference Committees: In Decline
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Holds in the Senate
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Capitol Corner

Holds in the Senate

Please define the Senate’s “hold” procedure and explain how Senators use it to kill a bill.

First Congress by Ilona Nickels
U.S. Senate Chamber
A “hold” describes a Senator’s request to his party leader that a specific bill or nomination be kept off the Senate floor for the time being.

The original intent of holds was to protect a Senator's right to be consulted on legislation that affected the Senator's state or that he/she had a great interest in. The ability to place a hold would allow that Senator an opportunity to study the legislation and to have a chance to influence the debate and amending process of a bill that greatly impacted that Senator’s state.

Today, Senators lodge a hold to receive assurance that a matter will not be called up in his/her absence. A hold may be used to gain time to gather information or prepare opposition. Or it may be lodged to gain entree into negotiations conducted by the leaders on the bill.

More serious holds seek to kill a bill. They signal outright opposition combined with a willingness to use every procedural tactic possible to keep a measure from progressing. Such holds are implicit threats to do one of several things. First, a hold could be an implicit threat to filibuster, which forces the necessary votes for passage from 51 to 60. Second, it could be a threat to offer “killer” amendments, which are amendments so unpopular that Senators would vote against the bill itself if the toxic amendments were part of it. Third. a hold, if ignored, could prompt a Senator to raise a series of objections to the otherwise routine agreements which drive daily Senate floor action and are dependent on the unanimous consent of all Senators.

Holds are not part of the Senate’s written rules. They do not have to be honored. They are an informal practice begun by the leadership of the past and honored -- to varying degrees -- by the leadership of the present. Senate leaders have the discretion to honor holds for an indefinite period of time, for just a short period, or not at all.

In response to a hold, the Majority Leader can (1) ignore the hold, proceed with the measure, and slog through the procedural repercussions; (2) keep the item off the floor and wait to see if the reason for the hold dissipates with time and changing political events; (3) honor the hold rather than allow the Senator behind it to use dilatory tactics to stymie floor proceedings.

Senate tradition is to keep holds a private matter between a Senator and his/her party leader. However, the identity of the Senator often leaks out. Sometimes, given a small number in opposition to a matter, it is not difficult to figure out who has the hold. Pressure on that Senator from his colleagues can be brought to bear if the Senator’s identity becomes known. And, at times, Senators have been up-front about their holds.

For more than ten years, Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Charles Grassley (R-IA), in a bi-partisan effort, have introduced the same legislation in several Congresses requiring all holds be made public. Most recently, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) led an effort that resulted in 69 Senators – more than 2/3 of the Senate – signing a letter to Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell requesting the Senate’s rules be changed to end the practice of honoring holds. It would take 2/3 of the Senate, or 67 votes, to change a Senate rule.

The letter also pledged that all the Senators signing would no longer place secret holds on legislation and nominations. You can read the April 22, 2010 letter here and see if your Senator signed it. The letter says in part:

“While we deeply respect and appreciate the importance of tradition in this institution, we believe the practice of the secret hold has no rightful place in the Senate or in an open and transparent democracy. When a member of the Senate wishes to hold legislation or a nomination, that Senator owes to this body and, more importantly, to the American public a full explanation.”

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