Friday, April 24, 2009

Mitch McConnell: Stop Me Before I Filibuster Again

The New York Times wrote today:

Democratic Congressional leaders were putting the finishes touches Friday on a budget plan virtually certain to protect a proposed health care overhaul from Senate filibusters, an approach likely to touch off a nasty partisan fight with Republicans.
But Republicans have strongly condemned the prospect of using the arcane maneuver on an issue as important as health care and have threatened to use their own procedural weapons to bog down the Senate if Democrats plunge ahead.

Democrats’ Budget Deal Sets Up Fight on Health Plan

Here at Slobber And Spittle there's one thing we excel at - stating the obvious. That's particularly true at those times when the traditional news sources seem reluctant to notice it. This is one of those times.

What "procedural weapons" might Sen. McConnell be referring to? It's probably the one they've been using all along, the filibuster. As Think Progress noted last month:

Yesterday, Sen. John Kyl (R-AZ) slammed the idea of passing health care reform and other Obama priorities through a simple majority of the Senate, a process called reconciliation. "Now, if they do that, that, in effect is the nuclear war," Kyl said. The Republicans have become experts at using Senate filibusters -- or often just the threat of filibusters -- to block the Democratic agenda while in the minority.

Filibusters Skyrocket Under Republican Minority In 110th Congress

Partly, this is due to a change in rules that was made by the Senate after the Civil Rights filibusters of the mid-'60s. As Norm Ornstein notes, though, it was still a rarely used procedure:

But after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the filibuster began to change as Senate leaders tried to make their colleagues’ lives easier and move the agenda along; no longer would there be days or weeks of round-the-clock sessions, but instead simple votes periodically on cloture motions to get to the number to break the log-jam, while other business carried on as usual.

As so often happens, the unintended consequences of a well-intentioned move took over; instead of expediting business, the change in practice meant an increase in filibusters because it became so much easier to raise the bar to 60 or more, with no 12- or 24-hour marathon speeches required.

Still, formal filibuster actions—meaning actual cloture motions to shut off debate—remained relatively rare. Often, Senate leaders would either find ways to accommodate objections or quietly shelve bills or nominations that would have trouble getting to 60. In the 1970s, the average number of cloture motions filed in a given month was less than two; it moved to around three a month in the 1990s. This Congress, we are on track for two or more a week. The number of cloture motions filed in 1993, the first year of the Clinton presidency, was 20. It was 21 in 1995, the first year of the newly Republican Senate. As of the end of the first session of the 110th Congress, there were 60 cloture motions, nearing an all-time record.

Our Broken Senate

Remember this chart from 2007?

Chart from: Democratic Senate Caucus

It's a chart McClatchy did in mid-2007. In the end, they slackened the pace a little, as this updated chart from October, 2008 shows:

Image credit: Wikipedia
(click to enlarge)

OK, now it's time to point out the obvious. See how much higher that graph is on the right is compared to anywhere else? According to the Senate's own cloture count page, there were 112 cloture votes during the 110th Congress. That's what Ornstein was writing about.

Now, for a bit more of the obvious - remember that cloture, the vote that breaks a filibuster, requires sixty votes. The Democrats have 58 Senators at the moment, one of whom, Ted Kennedy, is having medical issues that sometimes require his presence elsewhere. So, if two (or three) Republicans out of 41 vote for cloture, it will pass, assuming all the Democrats vote for it. This means that virtually no Republican Senators have broken with their leadership to end this obstructionism.

In other words, what Sen. McConnell threatened to do is exactly what he, and the rest of the Senate Republicans, have been doing already. As Ezra Klein notes:

If you want to understand why the earth is likely to heat and why comprehensive health reform is unlikely to pass and why the government is increasingly letting the Federal Reserve govern its response to the financial crisis, that graph basically tells the story.

Your World In Graphs: The Senate Is Broken Edition

So if you want to know why we need more good Republicans, as well as more good Democrats, this is one reason.

UPDATE: For some reason, the graphic I was using to show later filibuster statistics was passworded, so I found another one at Wikipedia. It's not quite the same sort of graph, but it gets the point across, and I know what the copyright situation is here.


Dana Hunter said...

We either need better politicians, or we need to take their toys away until they learn to play nice with others.

Cujo359 said...

Better politicians would be my first choice, but I'll settle for time outs and no toy privileges.