Jacob Sullum

Holds obviously can be used for purposes that offend supporters of limited government -- to extort pork, for example, or obstruct fiscal reform. But any tool that blocks legislation is apt to do more good than harm. Notably, defenders of holds include fiscal conservatives such as Tom Coburn, R-Okla., as well as big spenders such as Robert Byrd, D-W.V.

Still, it's hard to find fault with the new requirement that senators publicly identify themselves and state their reasons when they block legislation. We just shouldn't expect too much as a result of this openness. As with earmarks, legislators don't try to hide their actions when they're proud of them, even if they shouldn't be. Interestingly, no one put a secret hold on the secret hold ban.

Transparency also may prove to be overrated as a way of preventing lobbyists from influencing legislators by arranging campaign contributions. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act requires public disclosure of "bundles" totaling $15,000 or more in a six-month period. Like the new attention to earmarks, highlighting these donations may simply spur competition, as K Street's denizens strive to keep up with their neighbors.

Although honesty and openness are surely preferable to dishonesty and secrecy (in politics, at least), they're not an adequate solution to a government that does too much and is therefore a magnet for people seeking gifts and favors. If a pickpocket becomes a mugger, he becomes more open and honest, but that doesn't make him more admirable.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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