All Filibusters, All the Time

Judging from Glenn Kessler’s takedown of a claim by Barack Obama, I guess I need to go over the right way to count filibusters, again.

The correct count of how many bills have been filibustered during Obama’s presidency is: approximately all of them.

That’s what it means to have a 60-vote Senate, which is what Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republicans declared as soon as Obama was elected. Almost every measure and, until Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats invoked the nuclear option last fall, almost every nomination, had to have 60 or more votes to pass. That’s a filibuster.

Kessler suggests the administration used phony math by counting cloture votes as legislative filibusters. As he points out, there have been multiple cloture votes on single bills, and cloture votes on nominations can’t be counted as legislative filibusters.

But it’s also just wrong to say that there was no filibuster if cloture succeeded (no one says Strom Thurmond didn’t filibuster civil-rights legislation just because he was unable to block it). It’s clearly wrong to say there was no filibuster if the majority didn’t bother bringing a bill to the floor because they knew they only had “only” 55, 57 or 59 votes. And it’s also wrong to say there was no filibuster if neither side bothers forcing a cloture vote once there’s certainty about a bill that has 60 or more votes.

Here’s the bottom line: Only sometimes are cloture votes a good measure of filibusters, everyone should stop citing cloture votes when they mean filibusters, and as long as the minority party insists on a 60-vote Senate, the correct answer for the number of filibusters is every measure to which the 60-vote threshold applies.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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Jonathan Bernstein

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