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What's A Secret Hold?
The secret hold may be the most detested practice in the United States Senate. Anger over the secret hold is understandable, but partially misguided. Descriptions of the secret hold in Politico, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Hill, and other sources tend to be simplistic and misleading.
This statement is false:
One senator can anonymously prevent the rest of the Senate from taking action on a bill or nomination.
Here are the steps that allow a secret hold to work:
(1) Unanimous Consent
Most matters of procedure, scheduling, and debate operate on unanimous consent. The Senate also passes many uncontroversial bills and nominations this way. Controversial and partisan bills require complex procedural safeguards for the minority. But if none of the 100 senators has a problem with waivering some of these safeguards to speed things up, you have unanimous consent.
(2) Objecting To Unanimous Consent
Since unanimous consent is a way of departing from rules that can protect minority opinions under normal circumstances, one senator or more can insist that the Senate not depart from the rules. Usually, a Senator goes to the Senate floor and says, "I ask unanimous consent that . . ." such and such be granted. Another senator can then rise to object, which blocks unanimous consent.
(3) Making It Secret
A secret hold happens when a Senator chooses not to wait until another Senator actually makes the unanimous consent request to object, and instead communicates his or her intention to object in private. It saves time and changes floor strategy. Since the objection doesn't actually happen, it's an informal practice that isn't in the rules. That's why it's so hard to stop.
Secret holds and objections don't prevent debate from happening and votes from taking place. But because you can't use unanimous consent to speed up the process and waiver certain rules, bills and nominations that might have passed easily would now face an actual floor fight. Since these bills were probably very small and mundane in the first place, the floor leader now has to choose between these bills and more beefy bills that may be worth battling for in an extended floor fight.
That's how secret holds work in a nutshell. Our opinion is that secret holds are abused too often and for the wrong reasons. But it's important to understand how secret holds actually work to avoid misperceptions and understand what any reform ideas actually mean.
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