Hold reform is back in the news today, with Democrats led by Claire McCaskill now looking for a legislative solution to "secret" holds. Also, Harry Reid started talking about referring violations of Senate rules about secret holds to the Ethics Committee.
I continue to think this is a big waste of time. There's no evidence at all that the problem with holds is that they are secret. Tom Coburn makes his holds public, but it doesn't seem to stop him from using them. The problem with holds is that there are far too many of them. Well, if you are a majoritarian, then the problem is that they exist at all. But even if you agree with me that it's at least plausibly a virtue that individual Senators have a chance to bargain on behalf of the narrow interests of their constituents by using an objection to a nomination or bill as leverage, what's happening now is apparently something else entirely. Instead of the hold as an opportunity for individual influence, what we almost certainly have is the use of holds as a partisan maneuver by the minority party. That's an abuse of Senate norms.
The remedy for that isn't publicity. The remedy is for the majority to be willing to force cloture votes on a motion to proceed despite partisan holds. Rather than make Senators explain themselves and have the Majority Leader judge which holds are legitimate and which are not, the Democrats should play hardball: they should let the Republicans know that unless the total number of holds on nominations shrinks dramatically, the Dems will start calling nominations up anyway, hold or not, and force the GOP to find 41 votes against considering them. My guess that a good rule of thumb would be one hold per Senator to begin with, or no more than 41 Republican holds in all. Given that (per Steve Benen) the Senate currently has 97 nominees waiting for Senate action, of whom 53 are subjects of "secret" holds, that should reduce the backlog a fair amount (it's not clear from Benen how many of the 97 are subject to disclosed holds, how many of them are waiting for hearings and votes in committee and of those how many are subject to stalling tactics at that level, and how many are just recent nominees moving normally through the process).
As I said last week, there's not much the Dems can do if the GOP really does have 41 votes, at least barring the high drama of majority-imposed filibuster reform. But so far, it appears that Republicans are willing to engage in low-cost or no-cost foot-dragging, but not actually interested in voting against nominees to whom they do not actually object. Perhaps things would be different if Reid threatened to ignore holds and go straight to cloture votes, but then again perhaps Republicans might just drop some of their holds at that point.
But secrecy? It may make for a good sound bite, but it doesn't get to the actual problem, which is very simple: not secret holds, but far too many holds.