THERE IS no excuse for the Senate institution known as the secret hold -- the process by which a single, anonymous senator can block action without having to come forward and explain why. Senators know this, which is why every time the question has come before them, they have voted to do away with the secret hold. But somehow the hold has always held on -- because while no senator has the guts to defend it publicly, behind the scenes the secret hold is a useful tool for those who are more interested in blocking and extorting than in legislating.
This phenomenon was on display in the Senate on Thursday, when it seemed that a prohibition against secret holds was about to be approved as an amendment to the financial services reform bill. Not just an amendment but that Washington rarity: a bipartisan amendment. It was sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who have been fighting against secret holds for more than a decade. Their co-sponsors included Republicans James Inhofe (Okla.) and Susan Collins (Maine) and Democrats Michael Bennet (Colo.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Mark Udall (Colo.).
It was guaranteed to pass -- the only mystery was whether anyone would have the nerve to vote against it. Then, South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint turned up with an amendment to the amendment, to require completion of a fence along the border with Mexico, and tacked that on to the pending Wyden-Grassley proposal -- with no notice. So much for senatorial courtesy. Because border security is a hot-button issue guaranteed to stall the already complicated financial reform bill, Mr. Wyden withdrew his amendment, saying he was "flabbergasted" at being "kneecapped" by Mr. DeMint.
Mr. DeMint's spokesman, Wesley Denton, said Mr. DeMint did not attach his amendment to torpedo the secret-holds amendment. Rather, he said, Mr. DeMint had been encouraged not to offer amendments unrelated to the financial services bill and held off until he saw an unrelated "Democrat amendment" brought up for a vote. He said Mr. DeMint had offered to decouple his proposal if he were permitted a separate vote.