‘Good government doesn’t include the word ‘secret’ in the phrase’

‘GOOD GOVERNMENT DOESN’T INCLUDE THE WORD ‘SECRET’ IN THE PHRASE’…. As of this morning, there are 97 Obama administration nominees waiting for the Senate to give them a confirmation vote — and 53 of them have been blocked by “secret holds.” At a comparable point in Bush’s presidency, only eight nominees were waiting for the Senate to act.

This is, to put it mildly, scandalous.

One man, no vote? That’s the case in the Senate, where it takes just one peeved lawmaker to prevent a yes-or-no tally, often silently and anonymously.

That singular power can play havoc with nominations to the federal bench or an arts board, an ambassador or a general-in-waiting. It can block legislation to fund agencies or projects indefinitely.

These “holds,” which frequently have nothing to do with the qualifications of the nominee, have only become more prevalent as the Senate becomes more partisan.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) is helping take the lead to curtail the practice, and I spoke to the senator this morning about her efforts.

As of today, McCaskill has collected 55 signatures from senators — in less than a week’s time — who’ve endorsed a letter to the leadership against secret holds. All of these senators have vowed not to engage in secret holds, now or in the future, and want to see the practice come to an end. At this point, however, all 55 are from the Democratic caucus (53 Dems and both independents).

“Good government doesn’t have the word ‘secret’ in the phrase,” the senator told me. “It’s not good for democracy.”

As McCaskill sees it, the recent abuse of secret holds, which she described as “stupid” and “unprecedented,” is problematic for a couple of reasons. The first is pragmatic — nominees for “some pretty important positions” are blocked, generally from senators looking for “a backdoor way to work for the failure of the Obama administration.” Senators block qualified nominees, the administration can’t function as it should, so the hold becomes a partisan tool to encourage dysfunction.

The second has to do with democratic principles. “This is about transparency,” McCaskill said. “We just heard all the complaints during the health care debate about ‘back-room deals.’ Well, let’s bring some accountability here.”

The senator emphasized that she’s not trying to scrap all Senate holds, just the anonymous process that she believes has been “abused.” In fact, she specifically pointed to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) for at least pursuing his holds — of which there are many — the way “he should,” out in the open, “with his name on them.”

Asked about the resistance she’s faced, McCaskill said she’s felt like she “fell down a rabbit hole.” During one recent effort to bring nominees to the floor for a vote, Mitch McConnell said he objected — on behalf of someone else he wouldn’t name. “They’re completely avoiding accountability,” she told me.

McCaskill hopes to get several additional names on her letter, and sounded fairly optimistic about the effort. In the meantime, as early as next week, the Senate will likely vote a measure cosponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to an amendment to the Wall Street reform bill that would effectively end secret holds. McCaskill believes that will be a “very tough vote” for those senators who support the practice, because no one will want to “go on the record in support” of a tactic like this one.

Ideally, McCaskill would like to see the public get engaged on this. “People should write letters, asking, ‘Why isn’t your name on that letter?'”

Here’s the letter on McCaskill’s site. I’ll keep you posted.

Update: Dave Weigel has more about this effort, including the perspectives of several Democratic senators who addressed the subject with reporters this morning.