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The Senate's Little Kings

President Clinton and Senate Democrats are still fuming about the upper chamber's rejection of Missouri Judge Ronnie White's nomination to the federal bench on Oct. 5.

At least Mr. White got a floor vote. Other Clinton nominees have waited years. But Democrats did the same when they ran the Senate, for example, refusing to vote on scores of President Bush's nominees.

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It's not just judges: Both parties play the same games over ambassadors and other presidential appointments, killing nominations behind the scenes with an arcane practice.

Both parties complain, but no one wants to give up the tool that allows it.

The problem is a Senate tradition that allows one member, or a small group, to block nominations or bills, many of which would easily be approved if they could ever reach the floor.

By Senate tradition, any member can place a "hold" on a bill or a nomination. Such a hold can block a nomination in committee or keep it off the floor after the committee has approved it.

The Senate appears alone among legislative bodies worldwide in allowing holds. No one's sure when the practice began, but it accelerated in the 1970s and became commonplace in the 1980s. During those years, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio so abused holds that Senate leaders had to consult his office before scheduling floor debate on legislation.

The public doesn't really know how much good legislation gets blocked by holds because they are rarely publicly revealed. Earlier this year Senate leaders banned anonymous holds, a faint recognition of the larger problem. Now senators must notify the committee chairman and their party leader if they place a hold on a nominee or a bill.

That's better, but it's not open enough. The Senate should at the least require that the source of a hold be publically identified in the Congressional Record. Better still, it should put a time limit on holds or end the obsolete practice.

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It won't be easy, because senators are loath to end a system that gives individual members such extraordinary power. But the public must make it clear that it wants an end to such undemocratic practices unsuitable for a modern legislature.

Senators should vote nominations up or down, in committee and on the floor, and be willing to defend their positions.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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