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Research desk graphs: More filibuster data than you know what to do with

By Dylan Matthews

bswainbank asks:

How many senate filibusters/cloture votes have taken place during 111th Congress?

What were the motions being filibustered and on what dates did they take place?

One hundred nine cloture motions or votes have been filed; only 105 motions were filed, but four involved a reconsideration of the initial vote. Also note that the Senate tally does not yet include the successful invocation of cloture on unemployment insurance extension yesterday. Here's how motions and votes break down month by month:

The raw numbers here can be misleading. Most people would say the most critical cloture votes took place in December, where the total (seven) is only in the midrange, but where four of those votes concerned the passage of health-care reform. Here's how the votes broke down in terms of result. Invoked means a vote was held and debate was successfully ended, failed means a vote was held but fell short of 60 votes, vitiated means the motion was thrown out, and withdrawn and no action are exactly what they sound like:

The most interesting data on filibusters, though, are year by year. Here's how the number of cloture motions filed in each Congress has changed since the 66th Congress, which began in 1919:

As anyone who's read this blog for a while knows, the number of bills on which a cloture motion had to be filed to receive a vote has skyrocketed in the past few decades, and especially in the past two Congresses; keep in mind that the last data point refers to the current Congress, which will likely see still more cloture motions. Also interesting is that in this Congress, the rate of failure has gone way down, from 51 failed votes in the last Congress to 12 in the current one. Partly that reflects a bigger majority on the part of the Democrats, but it also indicates that Harry Reid has been very careful about filing for cloture only when he knows the votes are there.

By Dylan Matthews  |  July 21, 2010; 2:32 PM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Any one familiar with Senate procedures should know that cloture filings are an absolutely meaningless measure of anything other than the majority leaders style of floor managment. At one end of the spectrum Bill Frist almost never called a bill up unless a whip check indicated it had enough support to gain cloture. So cloture was rarely filed even though many bills were in fact filibustered. His predecessor, Trent Lott used to call Senators who had threatened filibuster and challange them to come to the floor and make good on the promise. When most of them backed down, the need for a cloture vote on that bill evaporated. Harry Reid quite often calls a bill to the floor, fills the amendment tree and files a cloture motion all within 5 minutes and not uncommonly on totally noncontoversial legislation. It runs up the cloture tally and allows his allies in the press to write articles about obstructionism; but is totally meaningless when trying to determine if the filibuster is really being used more now than in the past.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | July 21, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Isn't the appropriate measure something like "Cloture filings per opportunity?"

Maybe there were very few chances to file cloture from 1919 to the early 60's?

Or, maybe Congress is so unbelievably productive that the cloture rate really hasn't changed that much?

Posted by: rkjune | July 21, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

You should really note the very significant change of filibuster rules in the 1970's. And perhaps another chart showing party division and majority leader. (I'd like a followup on Woodbridge's allegation about "totally noncontroversial".)

Posted by: bharshaw | July 21, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

WoodbrigeVa1: Your assessment is pretty nonsensical. If Reid could have moved, say, last year's defense appropriations bill - which I believe passed on final vote with 99 yeas and 0 nays - without a cloture motion he would surely have done so and saved much needed floor time for other measures. Instead, the Republicans refused unanimous consent and so a cloture motion and the consumption of floor time was required. Even if cloture votes aren't a perfect measure minority obstructionism, they're a pretty good one since no leader will file if unanimous consent is forthcoming.

In any event, Dylan, do you think you could retell the story of how post-cloture filibusters were defeated in the late 1970's by Robert Byrd using the "constitutional option" to limit debate by simple majority vote in mid session? I feel like not enough people get that no less a defender of traditional Senatorial norms and rules than Byrd was willing to get there in the face of routine obstruction. Maybe the Democratic caucus could celebrate Byrd's career by doing the same now and passing a real jobs bill?

Posted by: rwclayton7 | July 21, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Curious: why do you still have a job with a "respectable" newspaper?

Posted by: sharastani | July 21, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

And if Republicans take over Congress in November, not only will they be able to continue blocking Democratic legislation.

Republicans very likely will investigate and try to impeach Obama.


Posted by: paul65 | July 21, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Awesome. Oh, I'll take all the filibuster data I can get. Thanks.

Posted by: bswainbank | July 21, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Dylan, as followup, would it be difficult to track how much time has been eaten up by the various rules around filibusters? I'm thinking of the 30 hour nonsense going on now with the UE legislation, compared to the amount of time the Senate is in session. i.e. what's the ratio between the amount of time spent on the slow-walk vs. the time available to do the people's business?

Posted by: bsimon1 | July 21, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if this spike is a consequence of the growth in the Democratic majority? When one party has such a large advantage over the other, their options are fairly limited in terms of influencing legislation.

I can't say I really blame the Republicans. Their only alternative was to try to compromise extensively, but from their weak bargaining position, they wouldn't have gotten much.

What I wonder is whether this trend will reverse when the party balance gets back to something more typical. Or maybe this event "broke the seal" so to speak and endless filibusters are inevitable from this moment onward.

Posted by: zosima | July 21, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

"I can't say I really blame the Republicans. Their only alternative was to try to compromise extensively, but from their weak bargaining position, they wouldn't have gotten much."

When you lose such that your opponents have an overwhelming majority, well Elections Have Consequences. Another phrase would be 'Sore Losers'.

As for the 'compromises' made by the GOP, please list them. The Dems started out compromising by including tax cuts, excluding single payer. The GOP simply held out until they got as much as they could get. That's hardly 'compromise'. Some Dems did the same thing; i.e. Ben Nelson.

The GOP is *clearly* playing any and every rule to the hilt to prevent anything consequential. There are over 300 bills pending in the Senate that the House has already passed.

The Dems, and previous GOP minorities, did not use Filibusters with the magnitude that this GOP minority has. The number of Filibusters has roughly doubled since 2006. Why is that?

If your bargaining position is so weak, perhaps you shouldn't have as much of a say in matters. That said, gumming up the entire Senate process to prove you are 'Sore Losers' seems like a really vindictive strategy, especially given the serious problems we face; some of which were directly created by the GOP themselves in the last 10 years.

The GOP to get around Filibusters for the Bush Tax cut, redefined Budget Reconciliation to increase the deficit by not paying for the cuts. Then they cry foul when the Dems use reconciliation to actually lower the deficit with Healthcare Reform.

GOP hypocrisy knows no bounds.

Posted by: rpixley220 | July 21, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

@WoodbridgeVa1 : Can you name one major domestic policy initiative THAT WASN'T FILIBUSTERED MULTIPLE TIMES?

Health care--multiple filibusters
Finreg--multiple filibusters
stimulus bill--multiple filibusters
ledbetter act--filibuster
unemployment extension--filibuster

Basically, the republicans have insisted on 60 votes for every substantive piece of legislation since Obama took office. Happy to see your list of nonfilibustered bills....

That doesn't even begin to count the number of times republicans have denied unanimous consent, which is necessary for anything to happen in the senate.

Posted by: srw3 | July 21, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Filibusters since about 1994 only need be threatened but not actually debated This is an important fact when analyzing the frequency of cloture.

Posted by: kalojohn | July 21, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

"it also indicates that Harry Reid has been very careful about filing for cloture only when he knows the votes are there"
Yes, but that also shows that Reid is not the fighter the Dems need. Hes should have brought every filibuster attempt by the GOP to a cloture vote, in order to show the full extent of their obstructionism. He seems to think Dems look better if they don't "lose" cloture votes, but this only results in downplaying the problem, and letting the republicans get away with their blockage.

It's like the Sherrod firing, Reid is just another one of those Dems who cave in to right wing pressure instead of exposing their dirty plays and making a big stink about. This doesn't really help the Dems, as the polls show. Too many people don't really know what's behind the Senate's obvious inability to pass laws that would help the people, like the unemployment benefit extension. And with Reid's misguided practice of downplaying the problem, they'll never now. He may have been a good Denate leader 50 years ago, but today the Dems need someone whose more media-savvy and who publicly fights back against the GOP. This is no gentleman's game anymore!

Posted by: Gray62 | July 22, 2010 3:56 AM | Report abuse

@Gray62: You nailed it.

Posted by: jonboinAR | July 22, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

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