Secret hold

Secret hold

A secret hold is a parliamentary procedure within the Standing Rules of the Senate within the United States Senate that allows one or more Senators to prevent a motion from reaching a vote on the Senate floor. Current Senate rules allow the hold to be only temporarily anonymous.

Origin and intent

Sections 2 and 3 of Rule VII (Morning Business) of the Standing Rules of the Senate outline the procedure for bringing motions to the floor of the Senate. Under these rules, "no motion to proceed to the consideration of any bill...shall be entertained...unless by unanimous consent". In practice, this means that a Senator may privately provide notice to their party leadership of their intent to object to a motion. At that point, the motion cannot proceed because unanimous consent has not been reached, even though the Senator has not publicly announced their intent to object. This allows a Senator to remain anonymous while preventing the motion from going forward.

The original intent of these sections were to protect a Senator's right to be consulted on legislation that affected the Senator's state or that they had a great interest in. The ability to place a hold would allow that Senator an opportunity to study the legislation and to reflect on what it means before moving forward with further debate and voting. [ [ Congressional Record: March 28, 2006] ]


In August 2006, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 was put on secret hold. This bill, intended to encourage transparency within government, was considered by political pundits to be an especially ironic target of a secret hold and much attention was drawn to the bill and to the procedure itself. [ [ Obama-Coburn Accountability Bill Put on "Secret Hold"] ] [ [ Senator puts 'secret hold' on bill to open federal records] ] Bloggers and political activists sought to identify the Senator or Senators responsible by process of elimination, by having constituents contact each Senator and requesting a specific on-the-record denial of placing the secret hold. Within 24 hours, 96 Senators had explicitly denied that they had placed the secret hold, leaving only 4 Senators still suspected and under growing public scrutiny as a result. [ [ Porkbusters: Who is the Secret Holder?] ] On August 30, a spokesperson for Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska announced that Stevens had placed a hold on the bill. [cite news|url=|title=Sen. Stevens is 'the secret senator'|date=2006-08-30|accessdate=2006-08-31] On August 31, 2006, Sen. Byrd also admitted placing a hold on the bill. [cite web | title = Byrd admits he placed a hold, now lifts it| url= | author=Rebecca Carr | publisher = Palm Beach Post | accessdate=August 31 | accessyear=2006] Ultimately, the bill passed the Senate unanimously.

In April 2007, the practice received media attention again when an anonymous senator placed a hold on the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, another bill intended to increase transparency in government. [ [ Who Placed a Secret Hold on Sunlight? | Sunlight Foundation ] ] The Sunlight Foundation government watchdog group attempted to "ferret out" the senator who placed the hold. [ [ Secret Hold Placed on Senate Disclosures - The Caucus - Politics - New York Times Blog ] ]

Again in May 2007, an anonymous senator, later discovered to be Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., placed a secret hold on the OPEN Government Act, S. 849 [ [ S.849] The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act ] before the Senate adjourned for Memorial Day recess. [ [ Congressional Record: May 24, 2007] ]

Attempts to amend this rule

Throughout the history of the Senate, multiple unsuccessful attempts have been made to abolish this practice. [ [ Senate Resolution 244 from April 17, 2002] ] [ [ Senate Resolution 216 from August 1, 2003] ] The practice was successfully banned in 1997, but only temporarily. Majority leader Trent Lott and minority leader Tom Daschle altered the rule so that anyone intending to hold a bill had to notify the bill's sponsor and the chair of the appropriate committee. That year, the result was that opponents of a bill would wait until the bill was before the entire Senate before announcing their opposition, wasting time and ultimately delaying other popularly-supported legislation in the process. The practice was soon re-instituted. [ [ The Scoop on "Secret Holds": No Rules Apply] ]

Enacted on September 14, 2007, the "Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007" amended the Senate rules to require public notice of holds within 6 session days. [ [ Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, Section 512 "Notice Of Objecting To Proceeding" (Library Of Congress)] ]

Loss of Anonymity/Attempts to Evade

Although a hold is placed anonymously, the identity of the senator placing the hold can quickly become common knowledge. Under traditional dictates of Senate courtesy, the identity of the holder is not made public. [ [ See, e.g., Danny Glover, "Beltway Blogroll: Confessions Of A Beltway Journalism Insider", National Journal blog, April 19, 2007] ] However, senators have become increasingly brazen in identifying colleagues who place holds, in all but name. [ [ The Final Word, National Journal's CongressDaily PM, April 25, 2007] (""We are down to one hold on our [Senate] side. And I know that cad. We're talking to the secretary of Health and Human Services to try to persuade him. And it isn't a her. It's a him. And it's not a Democrat. Want me to keep going? He's not from the Eastern part of the country. He's not from the Western part of the country.")(subscription required)]

Additional Links

* [ Standing Rules of the Senate, Rule VII]


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