January 18, 2013

The Senate Ethics Committee: The World’s Most Greatly Debilitated Body

By CREW Staff

West WingThe Senate’s “secret hold” may seem like another example of inside-the-Beltway theatrics with no repercussions for the public at large, but as it often did, The West Wing illustrated the practice’s real-world consequences with a dramatic touch.

In the Season 3 episode “Dead Irish Writers,” Sam Seaborn confronts a senator blocking funding for a particle accelerator.  Their exchange offers a quippy summary of how anonymous holds allow a single senator to essentially assume monarchical power:

SEN. ENLOW: It was put on anonymous hold.

SAM SEABORN: That only applies to nominations.

ENLOW: Apparently you’re wrong. Anyone can hold any bill for any reason.

SEABORN: I don’t understand. You filed an objection? How long does this last?

ENLOW: Until the Senator loses or dies. All you have to do is tell your party’s floor leader.

SEABORN: That’s insane.

ENLOW: Says you.

SEABORN: Senator, this isn’t a damn duck hunter with a gripe in my office, it’s Dr. Millgate. Now who’s blocking the damn supercollider?

ENLOW: To guess would compromise the spirit of the anonymous hold.

SEABORN: To tell me would compromise the spirit of autocratic obstructionism.

ENLOW: We’re talking about the U.S. Senate, kid. We’re the saucer that cools the coffee.

SEABORN: And the drain that swallows it, sir.

In 2007, Congress took action that was supposed to do away with this undemocratic tactic by passing the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA).  The law requires senators to publicly disclose their intention to object to a nomination or bill.   Senators nevertheless continued to use secret holds and in 2011, Sens. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) persuaded the Senate to pass a resolution in another effort to restrict their use.  CREW’s research revealed senators have continued to place what appear to be secret holds on everything from the president’s nominee for ambassador to Syria to reimbursements to local police departments for buying bulletproof vests.

In 2009, when CREW asked the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to investigate the continued use of secret holds and discipline senators for violating the law, the committee responded that violations of parliamentary procedure are “outside the limited jurisdiction of the committee.”  In other words, the prohibition is meaningless.

Sadly, HLOGA is by no means the only law that senators have broken with impunity.  Sen. Michael Crapo (R-ID) pleaded guilty to driving drunk on Christmas Eve, after telling police that he had been downing vodka shots before getting behind the wheel.  Despite admitting to illegal conduct, it does not appear Sen. Crapo will face consequences from the ethics committee.  But that would be par for the course in the upper chamber.  Just ask Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), whose real-life sleaziness could give the fictional Sen. Enlow a run for his money.

Sen. Vitter is probably best known for patronizing a Beltway prostitution ring, a crime for which he faced no punishment from voters or the law.  Perhaps that explains why he felt comfortable threatening to withhold a pay raise for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last year to force the secretary to issue drilling permits.  Although the ethics committee warned Sen. Vitter that his thinly veiled attempt at extortion was inappropriate, it took no action against him, citing “no clear Senate guidance addressing such conduct.”

A frustrated observer could be forgiven for wondering what exactly is within the ethics committee’s jurisdiction.  Next week, when the Senate considers rule changes to curb the abuse of the filibuster, it should consider the other ways in which the culture of the upper chamber encourages secrecy and unaccountability.  Unless senators take meaningful action to enforce their own rules, there’s no telling what other misconduct will be swallowed by the Senate drain.

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