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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

SPJ outs secret senator

SPJ leaders have been working tirelessly to bring to light the initiator of a secret hold on legislation that has bipartisan support, was approved by the House and had unanimous support of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Visit the link above to learn how you get speak out on this measure.

I'll let Charles N. Davis, associate professor of Journalism Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, tell you the story. His op-ed was picked by 165 publications.

Bill seeks to shed light but ends up in the dark
By Charles N. Davis

Congress, apparently content to explore ever new depths in public disapproval, is on the verge of having a single member derail the most meaningful reform in years of the federal Freedom of Information Act.

How, you ask, when overwhelming majorities support the legislation in both the House and Senate?

The secret hold, of course. Ever heard of the secret hold? It's a beauty -- a real relic of the stuffed shirts of yesteryear, smoke-filled rooms and fat cats with stogies guffawing over the latest bamboozle of the taxpaying schmucks.

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation's largest journalism-advocacy organization, used the power of the blogosphere to find out whose legislative bludgeon was buried in the back of open government. We called every senator, one by one, until at last Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., came blinking and grimacing into the sunlight and admitted it was he who placed a secret hold . . . on a bill that addresses secrecy in government. You can't make this stuff up.

Sen. Kyl -- this year's Secrecy Champion -- has several as-yet-unstated objections to the Freedom of Information Reform Act, a bill that would improve one of the strongest tools Americans have to supervise the inner workings of government and hold elected officials accountable.

The bill has plenty of bipartisan support. It is the product of tireless work by many open government and press freedom groups and fine legislative craftsmanship by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The House in March approved a version of the bill, with 80 Republicans joining 228 Democrats for a 308-117 vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee then unanimously sent the measure to the full Senate.

In your civics book, this would be the moment where our senators hold a public debate on the merits and demerits of the legislation and then vote.

But no, not when senators, using an archaic parliamentarian parlor trick, can stop a bill dead in its tracks merely by telling their party's Senate leader or secretary that they wish to place a hold on the bill. That's when Sen. Kyl, who routinely charts a brave course on the immigration debate and can often be counted on to reason rather than bloviate, slipped in the hold.

The practice of honoring secret holds has no basis in law and has no support in Senate rules. It's a good-ol'-boy creation and another of the seemingly endless perks of the Senate.

Tear down the whole argument in favor of secret holds, and it comes down to cowardice.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who discloses his holds as a matter of practice, introduced an amendment in 2006 to force all senators to identify themselves when placing a hold on a bill. That proposal has gone nowhere fast. Surprised?

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