Erroll Southers, President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration, fell on his sword last week, the victim largely of problems of his own making and skin too thin to withstand the Senate version of a full-body screening.
That's OK. What's not OK is the growing use of "holds" to stop nominations from moving forward.
It used to be that holds generally were used to let Senate leaders know a particular member had an interest in a topic or nomination. They are not part of Senate rules, but a courtesy of long standing. Since the 1970s they have increasingly been employed to advance political agendas, especially to prevent presidents from having their way with nominations to hundreds of federal offices. Attempts to curb the use of holds have been unsuccessful, and failure to honor a hold likely would result in the offended senator using parliamentary tricks to grind the Senate to a halt.
In many ways, the misuse of Senate holds parallels the growing abuse of filibusters. Until recent decades, senators rarely invoked the power to filibuster, that is, to extend debate indefinitely to derail legislation. Now, the threat of a filibuster has become so common that the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster have become the norm for passing any important or controversial piece of legislation. Witness health-care reform.
Mr. Southers' case illustrates the problem. South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint put a hold on the nomination because he feared the terrorism expert and former FBI agent would "give union bosses veto power over security decisions at our airports." That, of course, is a ridiculous charge intended to appeal to the Republican fringe. No rational being believes any head of TSA would do such a thing. But it did allow the senator to score points and obstruct the president.
The misuse of holds and filibusters is not solely a Republican problem. Members of both parties abuse these privileges when they're out of power. But it is a small "d" democratic problem. The framers of the Constitution did not intend that every piece of legislation would have to achieve a supermajority, nor that single senators could at their whim stop the president from putting together a team of senior administrators.
It's time to put an end to practices that make government less democratic.