The need for Senate reform — in visual context

THE NEED FOR SENATE REFORM — IN VISUAL CONTEXT…. Perhaps the best comparison I’ve seen when it comes abuse of the Senate’s rules came from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earlier this year.

“In baseball,” Reid said March, “they used to have the spitball. It originally was used with discretion. But then the ball got wetter and wetter and wetter. So soon, they outlawed the spitball.”

Right. What was once an occasional, easy-to-overlook nuisance became a major problem. Minor mischief started affecting the game on a systemic level as abuse ran rampant, necessitating action that returned some integrity to the game.

Republican abuse of institutional rules is extremely similar. The filibuster isn’t exactly new, but widespread abuse of the rules is a fairly recent development. For example, there were more filibusters in the last two years than there were in the 1950s and 1960s combined. Think about that — what once took two decades now takes two years. And it’s not as if there weren’t important pieces of legislation being considered in ’50s and ’60s.

The Senate has kept an updated table online, charting cloture votes by Congress over the last 90 years, and 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). I’d planned to put together a killer chart on this, but last week, Brian Beutler beat me to it.

filibuster-chart.jpg

You’ll notice that the Congress that ended last week did not break the record in every category — it helped that the Democratic majority was so enormous — but there was a record in the number of times cloture was invoked. To put the data in some perspective, cloture was invoked 63 times in the last two years, 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.

The upward trend in all three categories is just astounding, and a reminder of how far the Senate has strayed from the ways in which it was designed to work and used to work. There are still some in the political world, including many reporters, who think that the status quo is just normal operating procedure for the institution. That’s not even close to being accurate.

What’s more, also note that the chart doesn’t tell the whole story. As Ezra Klein noted the other day, “[T]his doesn’t even count all of them. It only counts those filibusters that the majority actually tried to do something about. Plenty more filibusters get threatened, but cloture doesn’t get filed because the issue isn’t important enough or the votes aren’t present.”

As interest in reforming this broken, dysfunctional system intensifies, expect to see this chart again.