The distinguished Republican Senator from Alabama, Richard Shelby, has put a blanket hold on all of President Obama’s nominations before the United States Senate. This affects approximately 70 nominations and their respective agencies. The reason for Shelby’s unprecedented holds, according to Evan McMorris-Santoro at TPMDC, is two of Shelby’s pet projects causing the taxpayers billions of dollars are not getting the attention he wants them to receive:
… Shelby is holding Obama's nominees hostage until a pair of lucrative programs that would send billions in taxpayer dollars to his home state get back on track. The two programs Shelby wants to move forward or else:So what exactly is a “hold” and how does Shelby get away with this? Ezra Klein provides an explanation:
- A $40 billion contract to build air-to-air refueling tankers. From CongressDaily: "Northrop/EADS team would build the planes in Mobile, Ala., but has threatened to pull out of the competition unless the Air Force makes changes to a draft request for proposals." Federal Times offers more details on the tanker deal, and also confirms its connection to the hold.
- An improvised explosive device testing lab for the FBI. From CongressDaily: "[Shelby] is frustrated that the Obama administration won't build" the center, which Shelby earmarked $45 million for in 2008. The center is due to be based "at the Army's Redstone Arsenal."
The first thing to understand is that there's no such procedural move as a "hold." It's not something senators have in their special senatorial utility belts. Instead, a "hold" is shorthand for a promise to obstruct all further consideration of a particular piece of Senate business.This is one more example of the downward spiral our undemocratic and dysfunctional U.S. Senate. It would be funny if it did not impact so negatively on the people of this country facing very serious national and global challenges.
The best explanation of how this works came from David Waldman, and I encourage you to read it in full. But here's the short version: The Senate generally uses unanimous consent agreements to set the rules for a bill or a nomination. A hold, in its simplest form, is a promise to object to unanimous consent.
Okay, then what?
The action in question can still come to the floor. But all bets are off. In practice, this means a filibuster of some sort is on. Let's say that Shelby doesn't have 40 other Republicans lined up to stop all Senate business unless Alabama gets its pork. In theory, that means Harry Reid can just call a cloture vote and break his filibuster. Problem solved, right?
Sort of. People think of the filibuster in terms of defeating a bill. But they don't think about the power it has to keep the Senate from doing anything else. But that's the power the hold uses. To break a filibuster, the majority leader has to file for cloture. Then there's a two-day waiting period before a vote. Then there's a 30-hour post-vote debate period. And voting on one bill might require breaking multiple filibusters, because the motion to proceed to debate can be filibustered and the amendments can be filibustered and the motion to vote can be filibustered and each filibuster requires the same lengthy workaround. Even if you can crush every one of these filibusters without breaking a sweat, you've still just seen a whole week -- or maybe much more -- of the Senate's time chewed up.
That's why holds are effective on bills and nominations that people don't care about: The majority doesn't want to waste that much time breaking the obstruction of the minority. This isn't health-care reform, after all. It's the nomination of Sandford Blitz to be federal co-chairman of the Northern Border Regional Commission. Is breaking a hold on Sandford Blitz really a good reason to delay a jobs bill for a week?
But Shelby has likely overplayed his hand. The reason holds work is that they're small enough, and rare enough, that they never rise to the level of something the majority can't live with. Shelby, in putting a hold on all pending nominations, just made holds very big indeed. And he did it for the most pathetic and parochial of reasons: pork for his state....