Political Animal


December 08, 2011 10:30 AM Unprecedented obstruction and false equivalencies

By Steve Benen

Politico has a piece today on Senate Democrats’ outrage over Republican obstructionism, as evidenced by Tuesday’s filibuster of judicial nominee Caitlin Halligan and today’s expected filibuster of CFPB nominee Richard Cordray. As Dems see it, GOP abuses are setting a new standard — which Democrats will take advantage of the next time they’re in the minority.

“There’s an old saying, ‘What goes around, comes around,’” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said.

Republicans respond that these current tactics aren’t new, and the Politico article tells readers the GOP argument is sound.

To a tremendous degree, Republicans have relied on filibuster threats over the last three years to stop Democratic legislation in its tracks — but they’ve replicated stall tactics used by Democrats when they were in the minority.

Indeed, Republicans complain about Democratic filibusters on President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, something that McConnell himself has said led to the situation the Senate finds itself in today. And the filibuster has been increasingly used for decades by the Senate minority party to block everything from routine motions to landmark bills, worsening the partisan gridlock.

If they return to the minority, Democrats say they won’t arbitrarily filibuster legislation because of a pure political vendetta. But Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, said the Democrats’ latest threats are nothing new, saying they launched “serial filibusters” when they were in the minority during the Bush years.

This isn’t a subjective question on which the parties are entitled to different opinions. There are objective, often quantifiable, answers to the points Politico and Republicans are raising: are GOP senators “replicating” Democratic tactics? Were Dems abusing Senate rules in the Bush era to the same degree that Republicans are abusing them now?

The answer to both is “no,” and the false equivalence does little to advance the discussion.

Here’s a chart Brian Beutler put together a year ago, showing the explosion in the number of filibusters. (It’s a little tough to read; click on it for a bigger view.)

The Senate keeps an updated table, charting cloture votes by Congress over the last nine decades, using three metrics: (1) cloture motions filed (when the majority begins to end a filibuster); (2) votes on cloture (when the majority tries to end a filibuster); and (3) the number of times cloture was invoked (when the majority succeeds in ending a filibuster). By all three measures, obstructionism soared as Republican abused the rules like no party in American history.

Consider this tidbit: cloture was invoked 63 times in 2009 and 2010, which isn’t just the most ever, it’s more than the sum total of instances from 1919 through 1982. That’s not a typo.

Yes, obstructionism is proving to be far less severe in this Congress, but that’s not because Senate Republicans have suddenly become more responsible — it’s because there’s a right-wing House majority and there’s now far less for the Senate to do.

Much of the political world would have the public believe that the Senate status quo is just normal operating procedure for the institution. That’s plainly false. The Senate wasn’t designed to work this way; it didn’t used to work this way; and it can’t work this way.

As James Fallows recently explained: “To make it clear: requiring 60 votes for everything is new, and it is overwhelmingly a Republican tactic.”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • Mudge on December 08, 2011 10:36 AM:

    Oh that the Democrats had filibustered Roberts and Alito, two, if I remember, judicial nominees. A Republican opens their mouth, a lie comes out.

  • K in VA on December 08, 2011 10:40 AM:

    The Republicans will continue with this tack as long as a compliant press assists them, as Politico does, by distorting reality to portray "equivalency".

    And the next time Democrats have the minority in the Senate? On Day 1, Republicans will change the rules to make filibusters very rare, if not impossible.

    Thwarting majority voting in Congress, suppressing votes in swing states ... is there any logical reason to hope America isn't rushing toward a puppet Congress fronting for the plutocrats?

  • stevio on December 08, 2011 10:44 AM:

    Can't you just wait 'till Wolf and Gregory point this out as soon as they can?


  • ElegantFowl on December 08, 2011 10:45 AM:

    The 2003 Stimulus Act passed 51-50 with VP Cheney's tie breaking vote. No filibuster on this legislation despite enduring crippling consequences. How many tie-breaking votes has VP Biden cast? Why does the Constitution even describe that power if it can only be used by one party?

  • c u n d gulag on December 08, 2011 10:46 AM:

    I'm surprised the Democrats weren't blamed for the gridlock by not capitulating often or fast enough with the Republicans.

    Lying sacks of shit!

    No, I'm wrong - sacks of shit lying around can be useful - they can be used to fertilize the fields.

    Lying sacks of salt!
    That's what they're trying to sow America's future fields with.

  • leo from Chicago on December 08, 2011 10:47 AM:

    "which Democrats will take advantage of the next time they�re in the minority"

    Oh come on, everyone knows the GOPers will go 'nuclear' the first chance they get and this whole filibuster stuff will be history.

  • Robert on December 08, 2011 10:48 AM:

    Republicans in Congress, and their lapdog "Politico" lying again this morning? Check. Coffee? Check. Keys? Check....

  • SteveT on December 08, 2011 10:48 AM:

    "There's an old saying, 'What goes around, comes around,'" Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said.

    Democrats, especially the morons who opposed changing Senate rules when Republicans started routinely abusing them, are in for a rude awakening the next time Republicans have the majority.

    The only question will be whether the Republicans change the rules 30 seconds after they take control or 30 after the Democrats' first filibuster attempt.

  • jcricket on December 08, 2011 10:51 AM:

    It stands to reason that if Obama is re-elected, the next Congress will change the rules for the Senate.

    Either the R's will have a marginal majority and toss the filibuster rule, or the D's will retain the Senate and realize that in order to make Obama's second term more productive, they will need to vote on bills with simple majority.

    If Obama is not re-elected, the R's retain the House and the D's retain the Senate, then the filibuster rule will not change, as the D's in the Senate would not want any House bills to make it through their gauntlet.

  • jcricket on December 08, 2011 10:54 AM:

    note: by 'vote on bills' I meant to end the debate, not the actual vote to pass the bill.

    thank you

  • Danp on December 08, 2011 10:54 AM:

    Just imagine if Dems announced they would block any appointee to head the Department of Energy. Any appointee! That's what Republicans are doing to the CFPB. It's not a matter of "too extreme", it's anybody.

  • Josef K on December 08, 2011 10:57 AM:

    Exhibit #1,000,001 for the need to revise the Senate (radically).

  • Max J. Skidmore on December 08, 2011 11:08 AM:

    It's not correct that requiring 60 votes for everything is "overwhelmingly a Republican tactic;" it's EXCLUSIVELY a Republican tactic, as Mudge, above, makes clear.

    The figures actually understate the extent of Republican obstruction, because they take no note of the items the Democrats simply don't bring to a vote, because McConnell says "we have more than 40 votes against it."

    Leo from Chicago also is correct. The standard argument among progressives for not changing the rules is that they will work in Democrats' favor whenever they are in the minority. They will not, because this crowd of Republicans will find a way to crush the minority when they have the majority, regardless of rules, just as they obstruct continually when they are in the minority.

    We cannot have truly good government until the filibuster is de-fanged. Yes, keep it as a delaying tactic to give some protection to minorities and require reconsideration, but not as a rule empowering an obstructionist minority continually to block majority will.

  • Rich on December 08, 2011 11:18 AM:

    Any story from Politico should be prefaced by noting its GOPer ownership and the lobbyist domination of its print edition adverts.

  • jjm on December 08, 2011 11:19 AM:

    We obviously cannot afford to hand over the Senate to the GOP.

    But beyond that, why doesn't everyone simply label that rag, Politico, as a "Republican" website?

  • Rabbler on December 08, 2011 11:22 AM:

    'Advancing the discussion' hasn't been an objective of the right at least since Newt issued his contract. Why pretend otherwise?

  • Holmes on December 08, 2011 11:29 AM:

    Right on cue, Republicans just filibustered Richard Cordray's nomination to head the CFPB.

  • rea on December 08, 2011 11:38 AM:

    The original sin of the Democrats post 2008 was in not abolishing the filibuster as the first order of business in the 2009 session. Didn't they see this coming? How could they not?

  • Trollop on December 08, 2011 11:40 AM:

    This simply shows that Democrats are spineless when it comes to getting what they want, while Republicans are outright sociopath powercunts without any concern other than world stupidity. No more evidence necessary here to get a clear picture of the need for a system reboot.

  • Kevin (not the famous one) on December 08, 2011 11:45 AM:

    “There’s an old saying, ‘What goes around, comes around,’” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said.

    This. From the pie hole of somebody who long ago sold out the privacy of CA citizens for "security". It is hard to believe this Republic is still quivering after its 200 year use-by date. Why not an amendment that states elected officials aren't allowed to warm their hands by the fire of America as it burns?

  • tomb on December 08, 2011 12:42 PM:

    Let's start with the assumption that the filibuster rules need to change. So what kind of filibuster rules would most of you recommend? Would you end the filibuster altogether? Would you require 66 votes? More? Would you limit the number of times the filibuster could be used? Or would you like the rules to stay the same just in case the Dems become the minority?

  • Doug on December 08, 2011 8:32 PM:

    tomb, return to the pre-1974 filibuster rules.
    If I understand correctly, under the current rules, the majority opposing the filibuster must remain in the chamber during the filibuster, those supporting it don't. Why? Because the filibuster opponents must, at all times, have enough votes on hand to PASS the legislation and not merely enough votes to out-vote the supporters.
    If the filibuster opponents DON'T have enough votes to pass the legislation, it's considered to have been voted down and would need to run the risk of ANOTHER filibuster to be voted on again.
    For anyone interested, I'd suggest going to Daily Kos, there's a daily House/Senate write-up that would have more information on exact ly how the present filibuster rules operate.