Of Course Mitch McConnell Has “Blocked” the Senate 400 Times

Earlier this week, Glenn Kessler wrote one of the puzzling fact-check columns I’ve seen in a while. It was over a claim by Democratic challenger Allison Lundergan Grimes that Mitch McConnell has “blocked the Senate over 400 times.”

And right up until the final two paragraphs, it was a fine column; in fact, I’d say it was an excellent, first-rate job. Up to those final two paragraphs.

Kessler makes a number of good points. He recognizes that cloture votes and filibusters are not the same thing. Correct! He recognizes that some cloture votes fail. Correct! And he gets the key point:

Some political scientists have argued that in effect, with 60 votes required for passage on almost any bill, a filibuster is in place for every piece of legislation.

By this logic, counting cloture motions is a very poor substitute for counting filibusters — and that’s why an anecdotal feeling that the Senate is snarled does not show up in the raw statistics.

If you’re wondering, that “have argued” would be me, and the “some political scientists” is Sarah Binder, who said in the linked item: “First, let’s put to rest the debate about whether insisting on sixty votes to cut off debate on a nomination is a filibuster or, at a minimum, a threatened filibuster. It is.”

Now, Kessler also makes the reasonable point that attributing all these filibusters to McConnell in particular is at least open to argument.

Anyway, up to that point, it’s an excellent item. And not just because he cited me! It’s a very complicated topic, and he lays it out in what seems to me to be an accurate and easy to understand way.

Given all of that, I think there are two reasonable ways Kessler could have concluded. One is to just say that everything is filibustered, McConnell is Minority Leader and therefore bears at least some responsibility each time, and so yes, the hit is accurate. In my view, that would have been the best choice. The other — and I would have had very little problem with it — is to say that counting filibusters turns out to be very difficult, and whether McConnell “blocked” the Senate 400 times depends on interpreting things that can legitimately be interpreted multiple ways, and therefore the best thing to do is to lay out the facts and stop there with no rating.

Instead, I was absolutely shocked that he finished:

In any case, the Grimes campaign made an elemental error in not understanding the difference between “filibusters” and “blocking” action in the Senate. A number of the cloture motions that Reid has filed were intended to speed things up, to suit his parliamentary preferences, rather than in response to something McConnell specifically had done.

The Grimes campaign might have been on stronger ground if it offered specific examples of what it considered obstruction by McConnell. But, as a matter of math and basic understanding of Senate procedure, this ad falls short.

Three Pinocchios

(That’s three on a scale of one-to-four, with three being “Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions”).

I don’t get it at all. I think what he’s saying is that to “block” something is to prevent its passage, as opposed to just delaying it. But surely that’s not the only plausible definition of “block” in that context. And at any rate, it’s very possible that Republicans have blocked 400 things during the Obama era, if one counts items which never reached the floor thanks to a filibuster.

At any rate, just for the record, once again: Republicans have created a 60 vote Senate in which virtually every item is filibustered. That was never the case before January 2009; it’s been the case ever since.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

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