THERE’S ALWAYS been a whiff of parody in the characterization of the US Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.’’ But it’s hard to detect anything humorous, let alone deliberative, in that body’s “secret hold’’ — the parliamentary procedure allowing a single senator to anonymously and indefinitely prevent block the Senate from voting on any bill or presidential nomination.
Critics have complained for years that secret holds are outrageous — as much an abuse of democratic procedure as an insult to the public.
Happily, that particular abuse is now a thing of the past. By an overwhelming and bipartisan vote, the Senate last week adopted new rules that abolish the secret hold. Individual senators will still be free to block legislation — the chamber’s rules usually require unanimous consent to bring a motion to the floor, so one objection is enough to keep legislation stalled. But no longer will senators be able to block a bill without leaving fingerprints. To block Bill X, Senator Y will have to do so in the sunlight, where every interested voter can see.
Senate reform still has a ways to go before the phrase “world’s greatest deliberative body’’ can be invoked without irony. Here’s hoping that the spirit of constructive cooperation that finally did away with secret holds will inspire the 112th Senate to try harder to live up to its nickname.