|U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (on left) and John Cornyn (on right) sponsored the Open Government Act -- but which of their colleagues secretly stalled it?|
(UPDATE MAY 31: The Secret Hold Senator has been found!...)
Here's a classic case where citizen journalists can join forces with professional journalists to collaborate on an important national investigation.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has learned that an as-yet-unknown US Senator has placed a "secret hold" on the Open Government Act -- a bill that would strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act. (S849, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT; and Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX. More commentary on this bill from SPJ. More about secret holds.)
Why should citizen journalists care about this, and get involved?...
The Freedom of Information Act is a tool available to everyone, since access to government information is a crucial aspect of a functioning democracy. FOIA requests often are the linchpin of acts of journalism -- whether committed by professional journalists employed by news organizations, or by citizen journalists.
In recent years FOIA has been seriously undermined by government foot dragging and stonewalling. Strengthening FOIA is in everyone's interest.
The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed this bill Apr. 12. SPJ reports: "The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a similar measure in March -- but that bill was blocked from reaching the Senate floor for a May 24 vote because an unknown senator placed a secret hold on the bill."
Effectively this legislation is stalled at the moment. While anonymous, the senator behind this hold is unaccountable for this action.
HOW TO HELP THIS INVESTIGATION
SPJ recently put out a public call for journalists from all 50 states to get involved in this project -- but in fact, anyone (including citizen journalists) can help. It seems to me that active involvement from citizen journalists on this issue might help foster more mutual respect and understanding between professional and citizen journalists.
Your participation can be as simple as a phone call. Just call the offices of your state's senators -- SPJ's tally page includes links to every senator's site, where you'll find contact information. Identify yourself as a constituent, ask a direct question, write down the answer verbatim, and send your results to SPJ to add to their tally.
SPJ has published a list of all US senators, and is keeping an ongoing tally of responses. So to participate, it's important to pose the question exactly as SPJ recommends, to make sure that all the responses are "apples to apples."
WHAT TO DO
Study SPJ's list and tally to see if your senator already has been called. If not place a call immediately. Ask simply and politely, "Did Sen. X place a hold on the Open Government Act, S849?"
Then go to SPJ's entry form to add your findings to SPJ's tally.
SPJ also requests: "While you're on the line, please make clear that you support the Open Government Act -- and that you want your senator to do so as well." That's a personal decision, but if you do support that bill this would be a good opportunity to let your senator know.
Extra step for citizen journalists: It seems to me that citizen journalists should get credit for participating in this SPJ effort. Too often, professional journalists still tend to overlook or discount our efforts.
SPJ's entry form only allows you to record whether or not the senator(s) you contacted and whether they placed this hold. Therefore, in addition to filling out SPJ's form, I suggest that citizen journalists should also e-mail SPJ President Christine Tatum. Mention that you are a citizen journalist, explain how you assisted SPJ, and ask SPJ to publicly recognize the contributions of citizen journalists to this worthwhile project.
Copy me on your e-mail to Tatum, so I can track citJ participation.
My senators (Allard and Salazar, from Colorado) have already been contacted, but most of the tally is still waiting for data. If you've never participated in citizen journalism before, this is an easy way to start that can lead to an important story.
OK, go to it!
BACKGROUND: WHAT'S A SECRET HOLD?
The current Wikipedia definition says: "A secret hold is a parliamentary procedure within the Standing Rules of the Senate within the United States Senate that allows one or more Senators to anonymously prevent a motion from reaching a vote on the Senate floor.
"...Sections 2 and 3 of Rule VII (Morning Business) of the Standing Rules of the Senate outline the procedure for bringing motions to the floor of the Senate. Under these rules, 'no motion to proceed to the consideration of any bill...shall be entertained...unless by unanimous consent.'
"In practice, this means that a Senator may privately provide notice to their party leadership of their intent to object to a motion. At that point, the motion cannot proceed because unanimous consent has not been reached, even though the Senator has not publicly announced their intent to object.
"This allows a Senator to remain anonymous while preventing the motion to go forward."