Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., was the target of some heated criticism over the weekend for anonymously blocking an immediate voice vote on a bill intended to improve the public’s access to federal records.
Some of the most heated barbs came from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Freedom of Information Coalition, whose executive director, Charles Davis, had an guest column about Kyl and the proposed Open Government Act in the Tribune’s Perspective section on Sunday. But it appears these attacks are somewhat unwarranted, as Kyl acted to preserve his right to have the full Senate consider potential bill amendments requested by the Justice Department and President Bush’s administration.
The Open Government Act, sponsored by Sens. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, would remove a variety of loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act and make it easier to obtain federal public records in a timely manner. Anyone who has tried to get their hands on a federal document, and has waited anywhere from weeks to years for a response, will know why this bill is so important.
The bill already had passed the House by a vote of 308-117 when it was considered April 13 by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy chairs and Kyl sits on. Kyl had filed 12 amendments for potential debate, but he and Leahy agreed to hold some private discussions that might lead to changes on the Senate floor, so the committee could pass the bill immediately, according to the formal committee report and a transcript of the hearing provided by Kyl’s office.
On May 25, Leahy filed what’s called a motion of unanimous consent, which
basically means no senator objects to a bill and a roll call vote isn’t needed. Under arcane (and unwritten) procedures, any senator who does object files an anonymous note usually called a “secret hold.”
Kyl says he filed an objection because he still hadn’t discussed his proposed changes with the bill sponsors. Kyl says he didn’t consider his move to be a secret because his concerns about the bill were well known.
But a “secret hold” completely hides which senator doesn’t want immediate passage of a bill, and the reasons why. The tactic is easily abused and any delay in the ponderous legislative process increases the chances that a bill won’t become law. In the past, senators have been able to single-handedly block bills, no matter how wacky their objections are.
In this case, groups lobbying for the Open Government Act launched a campaign to “smoke out” who was behind the hold by asking individual senators to confirm or deny their involvement. A Kyl spokesman says his office immediately acknowledged his role when asked, and issued a news release six days after the hold was filed.
It doesn’t have to work this way. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, always publicly discloses when he files an objection to a simple voice vote. Kyl should follow that example in the future, which might prod his colleagues into dropping the use of “secret holds” altogether.