A U.S. senator’s campaign to force an expansion of the border fence that partially divides Mexico from the United States is causing a deeper political stir now that procedural maneuvering on his part has scuttled an unrelated amendment designed to strengthen government transparency.

As Elevated Risk reported last week, Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina added an amendment May 5 calling for more fence construction to a pending high-profile Senate bill that would overhaul the nation’s financial system. DeMint wants 700 miles of double-layer fencing along the southwest border to deter intruders. The barrier now covers about 650 miles with just a few areas containing an additional layer.

But on May 13 DeMint upped the stakes by attaching his amendment to another offered by Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon that would have required members of the Senate to publicly disclose secret holds in which lawmakers quietly halt legislation from moving forward without explaining why or identifying themselves.

Several members of Congress from both parties backed Wyden’s amendment, and passage of the end to secret holds seemed a sure thing. As the Washington Post said in an editorial May 18 criticizing DeMint, “the only mystery was whether anyone would have the nerve to vote against it.” DeMint believed the divisive border fence was important enough to at least jam things up, so Wyden in response withdrew his own amendment since any politically charged, border-related proposal would undoubtedly have complicated matters. The Oregon senator lashed out at DeMint’s move during a floor debate:

I intend to come back to my post here again and again and again until we abolish the secret hold, until we ensure the American people see that government is being brought out of the shadows and debates are out in the open, where they out to be. We did not win this afternoon because I think we got kneecapped. I do not know how to describe it any other way.

According to the Post, a DeMint spokesman said the senator opposes secret holds and didn’t intend to jettison the reform attempt. DeMint only offered his amendment after seeing Democrats do the same thing with a proposal that was also unrelated to the underlying legislation – consumer protection and financial stability.

Ironically, DeMint said earlier this month that he brought the amendment in the first place after Democrats “gutted” a similar effort last year “behind closed doors.” He attributed that to the Obama Administration’s resistance to a larger fence, which angered the country’s North American neighbors when it was first built and led to litigation by some border communities in Texas. According to DeMint:

We’ve now had two administrations fail to keep their promise to the American people to secure our border and Americans are tired of excuses. Americans have demanded a real fence to combat the very real problems of illegal immigration that have led to human trafficking, drug trafficking, kidnapping and violence on our border. Congress will never be able to achieve long-term reform to create a legal immigration system that works until we secure our borders.

The fence has so far cost taxpayers about $2.6 billion, but well more than half of the nation’s 2,000-mile southwest boundary remains without the barrier. Watchdogs like the Government Accountability Office have said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials don’t know its impact on curtailing drug traffickers and illegal immigrants, because it hasn’t been evaluated. However, the fence has plenty of visible supporters, including Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who co-sponsored DeMint’s amendment and is currently locked in a reelection fight that centers around border security.

Thanks to Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News for creating a convenient link to the May 13 floor debate. Photo: Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.