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The Senate Puts The White House On Hold

February 1, 2010 - by Eric Naing

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the filibuster, but there is another obscure procedure that has ground the Senate to a halt: the hold.

As I previously noted, a hold placed by Sen. Mike Enzi [R, WY] on solicitor of the Department of Labor nominee Patricia Smith played a key role in delaying her confirmation by several months. But Smith is far from the only Obama appointee to have their nomination tripped up by a Senate hold.

Any Senator can place a hold on a bill or measure, pretty much preventing it from reaching the floor for consideration. What’s surprising is that this parliamentary move that is creating so many headaches for the Obama administration has no official basis in Senate rules. Matt Yglesias explains:

There is no real hold rule. When a senator places a hold on some piece of business it’s a signal that unless the majority leader respects the wish to keep the item bottled up, the senator will start objecting to the unanimous consent motions by which the Senate conducts its routine business. That would make it difficult to proceed on any issue before the Senate, so the leader customarily gives way.

On the bright side, holds used to be worse. Senators at one point could place a “secret hold” on something protecting their identity. This practice was done away by the last Congress with the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (S.1). Of course, there are still loopholes.

To be fair, delaying the confirmation of administration appointees is a game Democrats gleefully played under President Bush but, like with the filibuster, the delays under Obama are historic. As Annie Lowrey points out in Foreign Policy:

One year into the Bush administration, there were 70 appointees awaiting confirmation. One year into the Obama administration, there are 177.

Also like the filibuster, it will be difficult to reform the use of the hold. Senators generally love it since it gives them inordinate amounts of power over the legislative process.

You can monitor the status of all Obama appointees here.

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