WASHINGTON — It wasn't what you'd call shaking the pillars of the temple. More like tossing a few tomatoes at it.
"You want to know why the country doesn't trust us?” Sen. Claire McCaskill said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "It's because of this kind of nonsense.”
The “nonsense” the Missouri Democrat was talking about was the secret hold, a time-honored practice of both parties to stymie whoever is in the White House.
From the lowliest freshman to the most senior and influential committee chairman, any senator has the power to sit on a presidential nomination and deny it a vote.
It’s one of those senatorial prerogatives that many lawmakers cherish, and what makes them different and more powerful from the get-go than their colleagues across the Capitol in the House.
Much of what the Senate does passes by unanimous consent. So if one senator zigs when 99 others zag, that senator can be a force to be reckoned with.
“They have individual clout in way almost nobody in the House does,” said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie. “Members in the House have to spend decades there and become influential committee chairmen before they have the individual authority of a freshman senator.”
Which brings us back to McCaskill.
She said the Senate promised more than three years ago in a 92-6 vote to be more transparent, but little had changed.
“We have bad habit around here where you can whisper in somebody’s ear andstop a nomination with not being able to say why or who," she said“You want to hold somebody, that's your right as a senator. But own it.don’t do it under the cover of darkness, unless you’ve got something to be ashamed of.”
She noted that this point in the administration of President George W. Bush, Democrats had placed holds on five White House nominations. Less than two years into President Obama’s first term, she said holds have been placed on more than 80 nominations.
Minority Whip Jon Kyl said that he agreed with several of McCaskill’s complaints over the use of secret holds.
"It is my practice if have a hold for a very specific purpose, I’ll notify whoever would be involved in it," the Arizona Republican said.
He also said some of the holds are being worked out and expected several nominations to be acted on soon.
Senators might use holds to try and kill a nomination through neglect, or to extract political concessions, like changes in legislation; even to win projects for their states.
McCaskill noted that Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana has acknowledged doing just that.
Of holds by her own party, McCaskill said, “That is just as wrong.”
But she did more than just shake her fist at the galleries.
McCaskill called up the names of some of the pending nominees for a vote. The first, Stuart Gordon Nash of the District of Columbia, picked by Obama to be an associate judge on the D.C. Superior Court, sailed through without a hitch.
But very quickly things went downhill. Kyl objected to every other name. It was on behalf of his party, he said.
McCaskill pointed out that even as Republicans objected to the names, they “came out of committee without objection. But yet they’re held. In secret.”
They included nominees to sit on the boards of Amtrak, the Legal Services Corporation, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and the Farm Credit Administration Board.
Throw in an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a deputy U.S. Trade Representative as well.
Kyl said the two party leaders need to work out the timing of the votes.
Calling up the name of a nominee for a vote is generally their province. McCaskill aide Maria Speiser said her boss gave the Democratic leadership a heads-up about her plan and no one objected.
“It’s different,” Ritchie said of McCaskill’s maneuver. “But it’s frustrating for anybody who wants to accomplish something. The rules of the Senate can be very cumbersome.”