Unprecedented obstruction and false equivalencies

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.”