In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: taking a look at Senate “holds” on presidential nominations. This is The Two Minute Drill for March 27, 2015.
Despite the fact that Republicans have offered no substantive reason to delay Loretta Lynch’s confirmation to become America’s next attorney general, she has waited months – the longest delay for a would-be attorney general in modern history – and the administration and her supporters have grown increasingly frustrated. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is insisting that a human trafficking bill be passed before a vote is held on confirming Lynch to the top law enforcement job. The measure is stuck in the Senate over a disagreement over (unrelated) language Republicans attached to the bill that expands abortion restrictions. The Senate plans to dedicate this week to debating and passing a budget blueprint for next year, before leaving for a two-week spring break. Lynch’s nomination, therefore, is likely frozen until at least April 13.
“This is an opportunity, within Senate rules, to express my disapproval of the president’s abuse of executive authority, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said last week. “And it’s an opportunity I intend to take.” What are these rules Sen. Alexander speaks of?
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
The Senate majority leader, by custom, makes most motions and requests that determine when or whether a nomination will be called up for consideration. All business concerning nominations, including seemingly routine matters such as requests for joint referral or motions to print hearings, must be done in executive session. By precedent, the motion to go into executive session to take up a specified nomination is not debatable. The nomination itself, however, is debatable.
The question before the Senate when a presidential nomination is taken up is “will the Senate advise and consent to this nomination”? In addition to approving or rejecting a nomination, the Senate has the option of sending a nomination back to committee for further consideration (this is called a “motion to recommit”). Most nominations, however, are brought up by unanimous consent and approved without objection; only a small proportion of nominations, generally to higher-level positions, may need more consideration.
Senate rules, procedures, and precedents give significant parliamentary power to individual Senators during the course of chamber deliberations. As such, Senators typically have a variety of methods to delay or prevent consideration of a presidential nominee. Under Senate rules, for example, there are no time limits on debate except when conducted under cloture or a unanimous consent agreement. For controversial nominees, however, Senators often utilize what is known as a Senate “hold.”
The Senate hold is an informal practice whereby Senators communicate to Senate leaders, often in the form of a letter, their policy views and scheduling preferences regarding measures and matters available for floor consideration. Although holds are frequently understood as information-sharing devices predicated on the unanimous consent nature of Senate decision-making, holds are not mentioned in the rules or precedents of the Senate, and they are enforced only through the agenda decisions of party leaders.
Senators have placed holds on nominations for a number of reasons. The Senate itself makes no official distinctions among holds, but scholars have classified holds based on the objective of the communication. For example, choke holds contain an explicit filibuster threat and are intended to kill or delay action on the target of the hold; blanket holds are leveled against an entire category of business; and Mae West holds intend to foster negotiations and bargaining between proponents and opponents. Regardless of the reason, more often than not Senate leaders honor a hold request because not doing so could trigger a range of parliamentary responses from the holding Senator(s), such as a filibuster, that could expend scarce floor time.
In recent years, the Senate has adopted two proposals reforming Senate hold, both of which sought to eliminate the secrecy of holds. Despite these measures, however, holds have become more common due to a less collegial atmosphere in the Senate. In practice, Senate holds are a powerful tool of obstructionism utilized by both political parties. To overcome a Senate hold, the originating Senator must voluntarily agree to remove the hold, or the chamber must defeat the hold through a successful cloture motion.
Word Count: 499
THE FIVE: Here are the five best things we’ve read all week.
- Allies Like Us. Israel spies on the U.S.; the U.S. spies on Israel. That’s not surprising. But there’s a bigger issue described here by a senior U.S. official: “It’s one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy.” From Fred Barbash and Brian Murphy in WaPo: Israel Spied on Iran-U.S. Talks and Shared Information with Lawmakers.
- Google It. “A group calling itself the ‘Islamic State Hacking Division’ posted the names, addresses, and photos of 100 U.S. service members on Saturday, claiming it had obtained the information by breaching military security. As it turns out, the group didn’t need to hack the Pentagon. At least two-thirds of the troops on the ISIS ‘hit list’ had been featured on public Defense Department websites designed to promote the military . . . .” From Nancy A. Youssef in The Daily Beast: ‘ISIS Hackers’ Googled Their Hit List; Troops’ Names Were Already on Public Websites.
- I Want to Believe. “Fox Television Group chairs Gary Newman and Dana Walden shepherded the show on the studio side during its network run. The pair have made no secret of their interest in bringing it back.” From Cynthia Littleton in Variety: ‘The X-Files’ Revival: David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson to Reprise Roles on Fox.
- An Unreliable Partner. “For twenty years, many people in Israel and in the West have expressed the hope that Benjamin Netanyahu would prove to be the Richard Nixon of the State of Israel. Not the paranoid Nixon of the Watergate scandals or the embittered Nixon raving drunkenly at the White House portraits at four in the morning but the Nixon who yearned to enter the pantheon of statesmen, and who defied his Red-baiting past and initiated diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Wasn’t it possible that Netanyahu, whose political biography was steeped in the intransigent nationalism of the Revisionist movement, was just the right politician to make a lasting peace with the Palestinians? It is amazing to recall how long this fantasy persisted.” From David Remnick in The New Yorker: Base Appeals.
- Clerks. “The work might dehumanize you, but whatever part of you that remained human was your key to moving up in the job.” From Nikil Saval in Longreads: ‘I Would Prefer Not To’: The Origins of the White Collar Worker.
And in case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. This past week took a look at the regulation of toxic chemicals in the United States. Read the Column for March 24, 2015 – It’s Time to Give the EPA the Authority to Protect Us from Toxic Chemicals.