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What is a 'hold'?


The news of the day, as I mentioned earlier, is that Richard Shelby has decided to place a hold on everything that eats, breathes or moves unless Alabama gets a couple billion more in pork. Before we take a step further on this, it's worth noting that Shelby is doing exactly what Ben Nelson did, but attaching a larger price tag to his demands: He's threatening to obstruct Senate business unless his state gets billions in giveaways. Nelson settled for hundreds of millions. Nebraskans must be pissed.

But put all that aside: Shelby is putting a "hold" on all of Barack Obama's pending nominees. So, uh, what's a hold?

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.

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. If the Democrats have any sense at all, Shelby's hold is about to become as famous as Nelson's deal.

Photo credit: Dennis Brack/Bloomberg News.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 5, 2010; 10:37 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: The Nelsonization of Richard Shelby


Senate Democrats? Having any sense at all? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Posted by: UberMitch | February 5, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Ok. This is the perfect example of why the rules of the Senate are completely broken. The Dems should use THIS to end the filibuster.

Posted by: bswainbank | February 5, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

This sounds like the perfect excuse to channel Bill Frist and go nuclear to destroy the Senate's minority rules insanity. I look forward to the Dems once again declining to do so and getting nothing done.

Posted by: redwards95 | February 5, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Major tool.

Posted by: hillgirl8024 | February 5, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

This is insanity. Is there anything these R creeps won't do to cripple this country?

Posted by: drindl | February 5, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

It's worth noting that this completely unprecedented act of obstruction takes place ONE DAY after Democrats lost their supermajority.

It has been one day since the Republicans got the power to block everything. And on the very first day, Shelby of Alabama has decided he's going to use this power to block Obama's ability to appoint anyone to run any agencies, unless Obama hands over BILLIONS in bribes for his state.

If you needed any stronger evidence that the "party of no" intends to abuse its power, you need look no farther. It's literally been less than 24 hours since Brown was sworn in and the Democrats' ability to break filibusters ended. And Shelby pulls this unprecedented move.

This isn't a political party. It's a bunch of Banana Republicans on a search-and-destroy mission, trying to take down any notion of good governance while saying "hey, don't blame us, the Democrats were technically in power!"

Time for reconciliation. On everything. I'm sorry, I don't understand how we're supposed to get anything done when within 24 hours of getting power, the Republicans pull this kind of unprecedented bribe demand.

Posted by: theorajones1 | February 5, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Amen, theorajones1. Amen. This is REALLY unseemly. I bet I know what that earmark-hating patriot John McCain would think about it!

Posted by: Bertilak | February 5, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

as a regular person, i can barely understand all of the maneuvers being used to stall progress in our country.

the country is sinking, and it seems like no-one can help us.
it feels like we are in quicksand,and going down a little bit more each day now.
we yell and scream, and flail our arms out here, in the hope that someone will see us, but down we go, a little more each day.

Posted by: jkaren | February 5, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Majority leaders have disliked holds from the beginning and some have been more forceful about breaking them. Trent Lott used to regularly schedule bills or nominations for floor action to force Senators with holds to either pull them on start talking. Generally, they pulled the hold as soon as the bill was scheduled.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | February 5, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

The kicker: he's running unopposed in 2010.

Posted by: D-vall | February 5, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Oh, yeah, this move from a guy of the party that loves to point fingers at the Democrats for "deals" on health care reform.

Posted by: cmckeonjr | February 5, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

The Senate should be abolished and replaced with a body that functions.

Posted by: uh_huhh | February 5, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Republicans are the ones who run on a platform that government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it.

Posted by: ottoman88 | February 5, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Hey Ezra,

I got my hands on Shelby's actual hold note that he had hand-delivered to Obama yesterday.

It's pretty amazing stuff!


Posted by: chaslicc | February 5, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

There is a workaround for this built into the system: a general election. Eliminating the filibuster is not the right way, taking it to the people is.

Posted by: Section506 | February 5, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I am salivating at the prospect of this backfiring in a big way and blowing up in the faces of the entire Republican Party, finally illustrating to the country in an impossible to ignore way that their party has absolutely no interest in governing, and being the necessary catalyst to reform the dysfunctional Senate.

Or, like everything else, this will somehow make the Democrats look bad.

Posted by: bupkiss | February 5, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

The democrats often put holds on Bush nominees. Carl Levin did it with any judge to the 6th circuit to affect the University of Michigan affirmative action ruling. Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell did it with judges to the 9th circuit.

Let us not forget Miguel Estrada was held up on fake charges by the democrats, when it was found out that they were just petrified of a well-qualified conservative HISPANIC being appointed.

Posted by: Cornell1984 | February 5, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

We are so very, very proud of our senior senator. He has always put the interests of the nation above the interests of party, state, even personal gain. He has never taken any gain from his associations, and the $10million war chest he has amassed for his reelection all comes from his condo building in Tuscaloosa. He fully supports American enterprise, especially American-owned, like General Motors, and voted to help them and their workers have a stable future, when he could have merely supported foreign-own auto manufacturers in this state like Mercedes and Honda. He is a champion of equal pay for equal work, and he fully supported Lily Ledbetter (Jacksonville, AL) in her suit to get a fair pension when she suffered sexual descrimination at Goodyear. He fully supports health care reform because he knows how well the expensive near-monopoly of Blue Cross works in here Alabama, and how the uninsured are happy without access to coverage. Other states should have this plan. Such a self-made man, he always supports a raise in the minimum wage so that others can become millionaires also. True Alabama hero. Is this a great country, or what!

Posted by: pvanderpol | February 5, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Wow! Leave it to the Democrats to be kicked in the b.lls and still begging to have a discussion with the kicker.

Whether you like Republicans or not, the GOP would never have stood for this behavior.

Posted by: ernesthua | February 5, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

so richard shelby has had this hold on these nominees for months .... and the supreme loser harry reid only now decides to whine about it.

if ANYTHING is to be accomplished by the democrats, the first thing is to get the h#ll rid of harry reid and put sherrod brown in charge.

Posted by: mycomment | February 5, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Prediction: The Democrats will not vote to eliminate the filibuster rule. They realize that the "normal" condition of the Senate is for them to be in the minority, and thus more often the beneficiary of the rule than its victim.

Posted by: tomt73 | February 5, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

The republicans would bow up the whole country to spite the democrats.
How nice.
So here we have an alleged fiscal conservative holding the nation hostage so he can hoover up major, MAJOR pork, pork he doesn't want to pay for with any obvious revenues.
In fact, he wants this major pork, with no offsetting tax revenue to pay for it, and wants to cut taxes for his rich friends at the same time.
That makes Shelby a hypocrite, a liar, and a thief.
I would give my eye teeth to tell him so straight to his ugly little face.

Posted by: jeffc6578 | February 5, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

mycomment | February 5, 2010 2:18 PM


Posted by: priceisright | February 5, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

What were they thinking up in Boston? And I hope we've eliminated the notion that republicans are fiscally responsible and abhor pork. That should have been evident during their 8 year spending spree, but somehow they blame their wasteful spending on the democrats, who were in the minority and shut out during that time.

Never vote for a republican again. They are only out to get your tax dollars while lying about saving your tax dollars.

Posted by: Fate1 | February 5, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

This is the most ridiculous system I've ever seen. Senators need to start acting like grownups and ditch "holds." By the way, I have a better word for "holds": "extortion." The GOP has no respect for our form of government and will use any tactic to obstruct the will of the people. It is time for Harry Reid and company to ditch this stupd rules and bring some sanity to the process.

Posted by: gtinla | February 5, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Illinois, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin could all be Republican pick ups if the elections were held today. The Democrats will not change the rules with the possibility they will become the minority in the near future.

Posted by: tomhamand | February 5, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Here is a quote from Shelby's spokesman that was in the NYT. Since this has been delayed for nearly 10 years, why didn't Shelby block any of Bush's nominees to make his point? Its all about national security concerns? Puh-leeze.

“Senator Shelby has placed holds on several pending nominees due to unaddressed national security concerns,” Mr. Graffeo wrote. “Among his concerns is that nearly 10 years after the U.S. Air Force announced plans to replace the aging tanker fleet, we still do not have a transparent and fair acquisition process to move forward. The Department of Defense must recognize that the draft Request for Proposal needs to be significantly and substantively changed.”

Posted by: msmith2 | February 5, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

This is just hostage taking for a ransom, plan and simple. This Shelby is no different than any terrorist holding the US people hostage. I checked, there is a Cairo, Alabama in the state. Did Shelby attend a madrasah there to learn his trade? Release the US people's business.

Posted by: d-seid | February 5, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Force them to physically stand up and actively filibuster.

This fake filibustering just lets a small minority rule when the Constitution says it's a majority that decides.

Posted by: WillSeattle | February 5, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Shelby is acting according to senate rules. The U.S. Constitution says each house of Congress determines its own rules.

If Shelby happens to be a better parliamentarian than the Dims in the senate, and uses senate rules to his advantage, that is kudos for Senator Shelby and a black eye for the Dims.

Posted by: screwjob11 | February 5, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." As for those who say, Good for Shelby," is assume they are the same people complaining about the soaring deficit.

Poor US.

Posted by: amaikovich | February 5, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

This is one of those times when people in power are tested. So what if it could kill a week. It might be worth all the really bad publicity. Let Shelby and others, including Dems like Nelson or Conrad, know that this is now a game of hardball. If the Dem leadership does not speak up and criticize Shelby by name then they deserve to loose in the Fall. They need to make Shelby the poster boy for Republican obstruction. Use the Senator's own words. They are damning. Every TV show. Op Ed's. The President. A full court press. Call out the troops guys or we will conclude you are just a bunch of wuzzes who cannot govern. My suspicion is that the Dems will kwetch and kwell for a day and then ole Harry Reid will talk about comity in the Senate or something without ever mentioning Shelby's name, of course, and then they will give Shelby what he wants.

Posted by: tarryh | February 5, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Oh, wait. You said that this might keep the Senate from doing business? Well, how bad would this be? Go ahead, press through the holds and bring this whole smelly thing out into the light.

Posted by: PostBad887 | February 5, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Breathtakingly hypocritical. What a surprise. The Senate has turned into paradise for extortionists from both parties. Shelby reaches new lows with this. Methinks he jumped the shark this time, though.

Posted by: st50taw | February 5, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Not a DIME in earmarks for Alabama -- for so long as the Dems control Congress and Shelby is the Senator from Alabama. Time to play hardball, Dems -- no more bending over for pea-brained (can I say that?) wing nuts, including Lieberman and Nelson as well.

Posted by: dolph924 | February 5, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

WHAT? You don't want the Democrat majority to be bipartisan about this and bow to the Republicans who control the Senate like devout Muslims prostrating themselves before Allah? Have you lost all sense of proportion?

Posted by: morphex | February 5, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse


I feel the same as you. But, don't despair ... sometimes things just have to break COMPLETELY before they can be fixed. Every day, we get a little bit closer to COMPLETELY broken.

Posted by: onewing1 | February 5, 2010 7:11 PM | Report abuse

Make the b'stard object. And make the objecting b'stard an object of ridicule.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | February 6, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

One would think Shelby -- with many years of Washington experience -- would understand the risks and consequences of a blanket hold and not place one merely as a knee-jerk reaction. One of the reasons he cites is the White House cancelling a terrorist explosives analysis center -- yes, in his home state. Why did the White House do that? Who made that decision? Has the White House refused to answer those questions for Shelby and he placed the hold to get their attention?

Last year Shelby blasted the FBI because they had fallen behind on processing and analyzing IEDs for fingerprints and other intelligence to help identify terrorists and insurgents. Now, just more than a month after the attempted Christmas bombing of an airplane and the Administration's own national intelligence heads warn that they expect another attempt in the next six months, we find out the White House has cancelled a center to analyze terrorist use of explosives. Doesn't make sense to me -- regardless of where the center was to be located.

Did the White House decide it was easier to attack the center as pork than to admit their action? I'd be embarassed if I had to explain cancelling the center given recent events.

Regardless, a blanket hold is overkill and not acceptable -- even if the reasons for your outrage may, in fact, be rooted in concern for national security. Shelby should have shown more restraint, no question. But, the talking heads are keeping attention away from the real reasons for the hold.

Posted by: intheshadows | February 6, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

I encourage all representatives to "publicize" what is happening. Send a news release to every paper in the nation. American needs to know why nothing is getting done and whom is to blame for the holdup. And, keep sending press releases everytime there is obstructionism. Time for Dems to get some "balls" and stand up and be counted.

Posted by: pgmichigan | February 7, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

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