Score One for the Porkbusters

George Washington thought the Senate should be the “cooling saucer” in which legislation is tempered and slowed. It certainly went above and beyond its call to duty this August. Indeed, for one bill designed to make the federal government’s taxpayer expenditures more transparent, the Senate acted more like a deep freeze than a cooling saucer.

The bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), was scheduled for debate before the Senate left town for its August recess. Unfortunately, its progress was halted by an anonymous hold — a Senate practice wherein any one Senator can inform leadership of an intention to filibuster a piece of legislation.

However, the bill has strong support from a bipartisan array of government accountability groups and bloggers, and they may still be able to get it acted upon when the Senate returns from recess next week.

After all, it was these groups and bloggers who assembled over the month of August under the Porkbusters banner. They called every Senate office on the Hill, demanding to know who was holding up the transparency bill. Their efforts did not go unnoticed. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist personally interacted with some in the coalition and then sent a missive to all of his Senate colleagues asking them to be forthcoming with members of the Porkbusting community who were calling offices.

Some Senators initially were reticent to acknowledge whether or not they’d placed the hold — not, they said, because they had something to hide, but because they thought that commenting on the placement of a hold for a short term gain would disrupt their ability to employ the hold in the future should they need to do so. But Frist’s request allowed Senators who shared that concern to make what some of them see as a “one time exception.” It also produced a culprit: Alaskan Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

After being deluged with phone calls from the Porkbusting community, Stevens’ Senate office finally fessed up. An unnamed Stevens staffer told the blog TPMmuckraker that “Sen. Stevens does have a hold on the bill.” After that the cat was out of the bag and the Porkbusting community had its greatest victory to date in the fight against wasteful government spending.

What is “a hold” anyway?

The August drama leaves many observers wondering: Just what exactly is this Senate holds business? According to the Senate rules a hold is defined as “an informal practice by which a Senator informs his or her floor leader that he or she does not wish a particular bill or other measure to reach the floor for consideration. The Majority Leader need not follow the Senator’s wishes, but is on notice that the opposing Senator may filibuster any motion to proceed to consider the measure.”

Because it is “informal,” the holds practice is essentially tradition, not Senate rules. The tradition was put in place when the Senate, under Lyndon Johnson, decided it wanted to expedite the legislative process in the upper chamber. Because any Senator can object to pending legislation and has the right to mount a filibuster, the Senate employed a strategy to deal with the gridlock. The strategy was simple: unanimous consent. The idea is that you find legislation that the entire body agrees with and then move that legislation while the more controversial legislation is worked out ahead of time before the bill sees floor debate.

But this unanimous consent strategy has spawned anonymous holds. Operating on the unanimous consent platform, every evening that the Senate is in session, Senate leaders compile a “hotline” sheet with legislation that they consider to be non-controversial and worthy of unanimous consent passage. But often passage of this bill or that one is problematic, especially for limited government conservatives who oppose excessive government spending and taxpayer rip offs. In order to stop the “hotlining” of a bill that’s essentially a new taxpayer-funded goodie for a certain Senator, a hold can be placed anonymously. At this point, Senate leaders are on notice that someone has a problem with the bill and needs more time. The bill is then removed from the Hotline sheet and the Senate Majority Leader allows the holder to be anonymous for a 72 hour period after which he informs the bill’s sponsor of the holder’s identity.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, in a floor speech, said the real issue here is not holds. “The rules say nothing about holds,” he pointed out. “Holds do not exist. The issue is consent. Nobody has a right to have an individual Senator’s consent to pass a bill. They act as though you have a right to get it. You would expect if you are going to say you have unanimous consent, you have consent. But that is not always the case.”

Speaking of holders

According to Capitol Hill insiders, Ted Stevens was not the lone holder of the Coburn-Obama bill. Another hold was placed on the bill, but this one was placed by a Democrat.

Speculation on the Hill is centering around a high ranking Democrat who, like Stevens, is on the Senate Appropriation Committee. If this speculation proves true, it will further buttress the claim that the third party in congress — the appropriators — is truly the most powerful party in Congress.