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December 21, 2012 11:24 AM Cloture Votes Do Not Equal Filibusters

By Jonathan Bernstein

I don’t really agree with filibuster abolitionist Tim Noah about the solution to the dysfunctional Senate, but I need to correct him anyway when he makes his case weaker than it is. Noah:

The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg recently calculated that during the past three years Republicans achieved “very nearly one filibuster for every single goddam day the Senate is in session” [italics and impiety his, though I endorse both]. Meanwhile, I’ve calculated that during the current Congress the Senate’s ratio of cloture votes (roughly speaking, filibusters) to bills passed doubled. 

Look: since 2009, Republicans have insisted on a 60 vote Senate. End of story. That means they are filibustering every single item.

Cloture vote counts are useful if you want to make comparisons between Congresses. They’re not even close to perfect for that, but then again nothing else is either. But we don’t need to count cloture votes to know what’s going on here. It’s every single item.

(Okay, a very slight clarification. During the current Congress, although not in the 111th Congress, Republicans backed off the absolute 60 standard on one or two nominations, which implies that they may have backed off it for a bit more than that. Maybe. Maybe not.)

Anyway, cloture votes simple do not equal filibusters. The Majority Leader may not — does not — bother bringing things to the floor in the first place if he knows he’ll need 60 votes and doesn’t have it. A filibuster may end with a deal, rather than a cloture vote, especially (but not always) because the majority doesn’t have 60. For example, a filibuster to defeat a controversial provision in an otherwise uncontroversial bill could end with the provision stripped from the bill before any cloture petition is filed. It’s also possible that the Majority Leader could file a cloture petition and get a vote on it even if the minority really didn’t have any intention of preventing a final vote; Republicans have in fact accused Harry Reid of doing so, but given that they’re demanding 60 I would still count it as a filibuster.

Once again: cloture votes do not equal filibusters. They are a poor measure of filibusters, even when they might be the best measure we have. In some cases, they can be a useful measure nonetheless. But we do not need any measurement at all for the 111th and 112th Congresses; all we need are the repeated claims by the minority party that it requires 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate, and the observation that, in fact, it does require 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate.

Absolutely everything — every bill introduced, every amendment offered, virtually every nomination — is filibustered in the current Senate. That’s the count everyone should be using.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.