Hold it right there …

A member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee, Charles N. Davis serves as the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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.

This is how it works: 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. The practice has no basis in law and has no support in Senate rules; it’s just a perk.

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.) admitted it was he who placed a secret hold on a bill that addresses secrecy in government.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Kyl has several objections to the Freedom of Information Reform Act, a truly wonderful bill that would significantly improve one of the strongest tools Americans have to supervise the inner workings of government and to hold elected officials accountable.

The bill has plenty of bipartisan support. It is the product of tireless work and advocacy by many open government and press freedom groups and fine legislative craftsmanship by Senate Judiciary Committee member 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 forward to the full Senate for a vote. In your civics book, this would be the moment where our senators hold a public debate on the merits and demerits of the legislation at hand, then vote. But that’s when 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.

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.

Are you surprised?