Senator Coburn Puts Federal Transit Safety Bill On Hold

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(Washington, DC -- David Schultz, WAMU) As a journalist who spends most of his time trying to reach people on the phone, I consider myself to be a connoisseur of hold music - the music played while waiting on hold.

Most hold music is your standard synth-heavy, new age fare. Some places play classical music, which is nice. (Although, listening to "In The Hall Of The Mountain King" while waiting to speak with an unhelpful PR rep can be a little unsettling.) For the most part, hold music is created to be instantly forgotten.

But not in the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). When you call Coburn and get put on hold, you hear good, all-American country music. I called earlier today and got an earful of Trent Willmon's "Broken In," a song about when "your heart's on hold."

Funny that.  Coburn's  a master of the hold - in more ways than one.

Coburn is a frequent user of the Senatorial technique known as "placing a hold." Unlike in the House, the Senate requires unanimous consent to bring a bill to the floor. If a Senator doesn't want a bill to come to the floor, he or she can place a hold on it, single-handedly stopping the bill in its tracks.

Coburn is, without question, the undisputed king of hold placing. At one point in late 2007, he had placed 95 different bills on hold. Coburn has been known to put holds on bills that all 99 other Senators support.

His latest hold is one that could have a big impact on public transportation. According to Democratic staffers in the Senate Majority Leader's office and in the Senate Banking Committee, Coburn has placed a hold on a bill that would give the federal government authority to set safety standards for urban transit systems.

Unlike with nearly every other mode of transportation, transit systems in big cities are not currently subject to federal regulation. And the National Transportation Safety Board said earlier this week (watch their animation here)  that this lack of oversight was one of the factors that led to last year's fatal train crash on D.C.'s Metro, which killed eight passengers and a train operator.

Senators from both sides of the aisle are backing this measure; the Banking Committee - which, for some reason, is handling the legislation - approved it unanimously.

But Coburn's tactics may have cast it a fatal blow. A staffer in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says Coburn's hold has eliminated any chance the bill will head to the floor before the August recess. And Jim Berard, a majority staffer with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says the House refuses to even look at the bill before the full Senate passes it, for fear they'll be wasting their time.

I contacted Coburn's office yesterday and today to ask why he's blocking this legislation, but I didn't get a response. I did, however, get put on hold.