Senate Ethics Panel Won’t Investigate Use of Secret ‘Holds’

Posted April 13, 2010 at 3:29pm

The Senate Ethics Committee rejected a government watchdog’s request to investigate the use of secret legislative “holds,” stating that the panel is not responsible for probing procedural violations, according to an ethics panel letter made public Tuesday.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Ethics Committee in December, calling for an investigation of Senators who continue to use secret holds, despite a provision in 2007 ethics reform laws intended to curb the practice.

“We are unaware of any precedent whereby the Committee has investigated, or recommended ‘discipline,’ based on an alleged violation of a Senate procedural rule, let alone a directive,” Ethics Staff Director and Chief Counsel John Sassaman wrote in a Friday letter to CREW rejecting the complaint.

“The argument that it is within the Committee’s jurisdiction to investigate, remedy, and discipline violations of Senate parliamentary procedure does not appear to have been based upon any reading of the Committee’s organic jurisdiction or Committee precedent,” Sassaman added. “Moreover, a finding that a violation of section 512 constitutes ‘improper conduct reflecting upon the Senate’ could effectively turn the Committee into a policing agency for alleged departures from Senate parliamentary procedure, a matter which is outside the limited jurisdiction of the committee.”

Under the 2007 reforms in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, Senators are to disclose secret holds through a series of actions, including a notice filed in the Congressional Record, unless the lawmaker opts to otherwise publicly announce a hold, one of several loopholes in the provision.

The provision did not include an enforcement mechanism, however, or establish a new Senate rule.

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan lambasted the decision.

“If the ethics committee can’t enforce a ban on secret holds enacted by the Senate just a couple of years ago, then the ban was clearly nothing more than a sham from the get go,” Sloan said in a statement. “The Senate tried to pawn off this ban to an American public fed up with Congressional inaction and secrecy as real change. Now we learn the truth: the ban — like so much that comes out of Senators’ mouths — is meaningless. Was the ban part of ‘honest leadership’ or ‘open government’? Seems like a tossup.”