No, this isn't another post about BlogHer.
This week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced a large package of non-controversial bills wrapped into a single "omnibus" piece of legislation and placed it on the Senate calendar. Ordinarily this wouldn't get much attention, but the legislative history of each individual proposal makes Senator Reid's action a very, very big deal.
Each provision in the omnibus had fallen victim to a "hold" by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).
I have some personal experience with this tactic. When I worked for a Senator several years ago, I helped write a piece of legislation called the LEADERS Act that would provide federal support for small business incubators based in academic settings. It was a bipartisan bill and passed unanimously through committee.
The bill was put up for passage by "unanimous consent." Within minutes it cleared the Democratic side, but one Republican Senator - someone who was allegedly upset that my boss opposed confirming a controversial judge from that Senator's home state - objected to the unanimous consent request, effectively "holding" its passage for reasons that had nothing to do with the merits of the bill. He wanted to send my boss a message - "there are political consequences for voting against one of my people."
I was upset because I thought the bill was - and still is - a very good idea. But I understood that's the nature of politics, that my boss' opposition to that judge was an important issue, and the quiet-if-not-quite-anonymous hold is one of the most guarded traditions in the Senate.
Apparently no longer.
Senator Reid has apparently decided to call out Senate Republicans in general, and Senator Coburn in particular, for political obstruction. I think it's a bit risky - after all, Democrats have "held" non-controversial bills as well and this tactic invites a tit-for-tat response from the Republicans, probably in the form of an amendment to the bill that includes non-controversial items "held" by Senator Reid or any Senate Democrat up for re-election this year.
Regardless, this is the kind of inside-baseball political stuff that Senate nerds like me see as a sea change within the world's most deliberative body. And as I look at the list of proposals in what Democrats are calling the "Coburn Holds" package one very important provision stands out:
The Melanie Blocker Stokes MOTHERS Act.
The package contains a number of bills with "star power," like the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, or are essentially re-authorizations of laws that get done within the normal course of Senate business, like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation reauthorization. In short, many have that extra political or bureacratic nudge to get them noticed and passed. But the MOTHERS Act really doesn't.
So how does a bill that helps one of America's least powerful political constituencies (moms with postpartum depression), named after a woman no one ever heard of, get on the Senate Majority Leader's radar and on the list?
OK, one in particular - Katherine Stone of Postpartum Progress, who has been banging the online drum and organizing bloggers on this issue for some time now and has worked with a non-profit to organize and submit an online petition to Congress. In short, Ms. Stone has demonstrated to the United States Senate that there is an interested and important constituency for this legislation, and those who support it will be recognized. Plus passing the bill is the right thing to do.
It's clear that Senator Reid isn't doing this because Katherine Stone told him to. He's scoring short-term political points while getting some good ideas passed. But it's obvious that Stone's efforts helped Reid and the Democrats understand that people want to see these bills passed, and helped convince him this tactic is worth the risk.
There are some important lessons to be learned here. First, sometimes all it takes is a little effort and organizing - plus some political opportunity - to overcome the legislative inertia the Senate often displays.
Second, that organizing can be effective even if it's done primarily in the online channel - businesses can use social media as a primary component of their government relations efforts, if they do it right. The key is to understand the community you're working with, identifying the leaders within it, building relationships with them, building and sustaining a coalition of support, and motivating individuals to act at the right time.
Finally, the nature of the Senate has changed, emphasizing transparency and process - ironically, the values that are promoted most in social media. Holds are no longer anonymous and the worst abusers of the hold won't be tolerated. It will take some time for politicians to get used to the new rules here and those who understand them best will do well.