Rand Paul’s Hold on the Senate

At a time when Israel is beset by enemies on all sides and the danger from Iran in Syria and Lebanon has mounted, Senator Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky has made himself into a one-man impediment to Israel’s security.

Paul is blocking passage of the U.S.-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act of 2018, which codifies into law the $38 billion defense aid package for Israel over 10 years that was painstakingly negotiated at the end of the Obama administration.

While obstruction of legislation has more typically come about through the autocratic methods of powerful committee chairmen, or through filibusters carried on by individual or groups of senators on the floor, in this case it’s a lesser-known parliamentary tactic known as a “hold.”

Any senator is entitled to place a hold on legislation, thus preventing it from being brought to the floor for debate and a vote. That’s because of the unanimous consent rule, which requires that all senators must agree to move a bill out of committee. If even one senator objects, for whatever reason, the hold is on, and nothing moves unless or until he or she does.

The irony of the measure is that holds, like unanimous consent agreements, were originally intended to expedite the Senate’s work by keeping relatively unimportant bills off the floor and avoiding fights over scheduling by prior arrangement so that more urgent matters could be taken up.

Unfortunately, in this case, the opposite is happening. The defense aid for Israel is vital for its security; nothing is more important. And in recognition of that fact, it has gained the support of both Republicans and Democrats. As critical President Barack Obama was of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, he repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to survive, and did not stint on funding for that purpose. However much the bipartisan consensus on Israel has frayed in recent years, the conviction that Israeli security is paramount remains.

Except, it seems, for Rand Paul. The Kentuckian describes himself as a “constitutional conservative,” not an isolationist. Or at least not a strict isolationist. He does concede that America has some role to play abroad and, for example, supports permanent military bases in other countries as a legitimate projection of power.

But he tries as hard as he can to limit them too. “I’m not saying don’t have any,” he has said. “I’m just saying maybe not 900. I mean, I’d rather have one at Fort Campbell and Fort Knox than one in Timbuktu.”

That may be a perfectly reasonable position. But his position on aid to Israel is not. Israel is not Timbuktu; it is a major ally, which is under existential threat and needs American assistance to fight for its survival.

Pro-Israel advocates like AIPAC have been so frustrated with Paul’s intransigence that they have resorted to social media to bring pressure on him to lift the hold. Some of his own colleagues are exasperated as well:

Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican leading the effort for passage, has called Paul’s stand “inexplicable.” His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, said Paul’s “stated reasons for opposing the bill neither make sense nor support America’s strategic interests.”

Actually, it’s hard to know what Paul’s reasons are, beyond a general antipathy to foreign aid. Even Rubio’s office reportedly complained they could not obtain an explanation from him, though the senator’s spokesman denied that, saying “our office has always been responsive.”

Paul insists that he is not anti-Israel. However, in the long-term interest of both Israel and the United States, he believes that that country should become self-sufficient. The only problem with that philosophy is that in the short term, the defense package is an absolute necessity for Israel. (Oh, save us from those who know what’s best for us!)

Attempts to reason with Paul have yielded signs that he will soon relax his hold on the Authorization Act. The senator said he plans to introduce a measure in the coming days that will adjust foreign aid funding in a way he can agree to.

“If we are going to send aid to Israel it should be limited in time and scope so we aren’t doing it forever, and it should be paid for by cutting the aid to people who hate Israel and America,” Paul told Politico.

Whether his caveats will be acceptable to the Senate and to Israel remains to be seen. In the final analysis, the power of a hold is not absolute; it can be overriden by the Senate leadership, though then the senator can persist in his obstructionism with a filibuster.

Meanwhile, Paul’s vexatious stance has shined a light on a procedure that has perhaps outlived its usefulness and is now more of an illustration of unintended consequences than a facilitator of Senate business.

The hold came into use in the 1960s, and probably did some good at the time, giving senators advance notice of measures on their way to the floor. But by the 1970s it was already beginning to be subject to abuse, through what Sarah Binder of Brookings termed “single-senator vetoes.” One of the most egregious instances was the four-year delay of Judge Richard Paez’s confirmation to a Ninth Circuit judgeship in the late 1990s.

Just last week, it emerged that a secret hold had been put on hundreds of senior officer Air Force promotions. They were held hostage to force the Air Force to deliver on a promise of four new C-130 cargo planes for the Idaho Air National Guard. You don’t have to be a professional pundit to figure out which state the lawmaker came from who put on the hold.

Indeed, Rand Paul is only part of the problem. Such tried, tested and found dysfunctional procedures have an undue hold on Senate procedure. The delays caused can be merely exasperating, or they can be a menace to a rational foreign policy.

The Senate loves its traditions, but maybe the time has come to let this one go.