Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Sense of Cloture

I have been hearing for years now about how the Republicans have been obstructionists in the face of progress in Congress. There have been numerous reports in blogs and seemingly reputable news sources that the Republicans in the Senate have had a record number of filibusters since they became the minority party. The claims that "80% of the bills were filibustered", and the like, have been a constant drum beat by the left. But does it hold up to scrutiny?

Well, no. Of course it doesn't. To begin with the civics challenged news media has made the very basic failure of equating cloture votes with filibusters. Cloture is a vote on a bill in which, with a super majority, the Senate agrees to cease debate on a bill and bring it to a vote. Filibusters are, in simple terms, a indefinite extension of debate following a failed vote on cloture. Cloture kills a filibuster.

Following so far? Good. Well, cloture is not just to end a filibuster. Cloture is also enacted when there is such an overwhelming support for a bill that the mandatory debate time is pointless. In these cases there is a cloture vote just to shorten the debate on the floor even though there is no standing or serious threat of filibuster -- the opposition being far fewer than the 40 needed to break a cloture vote.

So right off the bat there is a serious flaw in the Cloture=Filibuster argument. If votes for cloture were made with no looming threat of a filibuster, then those votes can't really be counted as filibusters. In fact, since a filibuster requires a FAILED cloture vote, we can only really count FAILED cloture votes as potential filibusters.

But I decided to check the numbers myself and set the following ground rules for evaluating filibusters, filibuster threats, and non-filibuster cloture votes:

Filibusters - These are the bills that were successfully killed by an actual filibuster, or tabled to avoid the imminent threat of a filibuster. Regardless of the actual debate on a bill, any bill that fails cloture and is then tabled, will be considered a successful filibuster.

This is giving the Democrat claim a lot of leeway, however, since technically there have been no actual filibusters in any of these Congressional sessions.

Filibuster Threats - Any cloture vote in which there are greater than 30 nay votes, but where the bill passed anyway. "Close, but no cigar".

Non-Filibuster Clotures - These would be any cloture vote in which 30 or fewer Senators voted against cloture, or bills in which cloture was withdrawn and the bill was voted on(no filibuster) . When the Nays fall so short that there was never a credible threat of an actual filibuster then these votes were simply to skip the needless debate in the face of overwhelming support.

OK, with that ground work in place, lets look at the numbers for the 110th, 111th and 112th Congress. These are the Congresses in which the Republicans were supposed to be playing obstructionists. The numbers:

110th Congress
Total Cloture votes- 139
Filibusters - 20 (14%)
Filibuster Threats - 33 (24%)
Non-Filibuster Cloture - 86 (62%)

111th Congress
Total Cloture votes- 136
Filibusters - 11 (8%)
Filibuster Threats - 40 (29%)
Non-Filibuster Cloture - 85 (63%)

112th Congress (to date)

Total Cloture votes- 25
Filibusters - 0 (0%)
Filibuster Threats - 8 (32%)
Non-Filibuster Cloture - 17 (68%)

And here are the total figures:

Total Cloture votes- 300
Filibusters - 31 (10%)
Filibuster Threats - 81 (27%)
Non-Filibuster Cloture - 188 (63%)

So, in these two and a half congresses, by my very forgiving statistical method, we have 63% of the total cloture votes that were past in landslides, so no filibuster was even threatened. In fact, between the 110th congress and 111th congress we see a slight downturn in potential filibusters from 53 to 51, and the "successful" filibusters cut nearly in half. This is to be expected given the fat that the Senate was essentially filibuster proof for part of the 111th Congress.

So how does this stand up to previous Senates? Well, let's do the same evaluation for the 109th Congress:

109th Congress
Total Cloture votes-
Filibusters - 11 (16%)
Filibuster Threats - 14 (21%)
Non-Filibuster Cloture - 43 (63%)

Well, that is interesting. The Non-Filibuster Cloture vote rates remained steady, and while the total cloture votes did double, the biggest change in that time was the number of successful "filibusters" by my admittedly stretched definition of the word. Well, obviously something is up. Total cloture going into the 110th congress shot way up in all categories, while their success rate fluctuated from 16% to 20% and down to 10%.. this is easily explained by the simple fact that a more evenly divided Senate is prone to more successful filibusters.

But these statistics don't really play to the Democrats narrative. If it were the Republicans acting as the stalling party and obstructionists then we would expect to see a jump in the Filibuster and filibuster threat numbers (which we do) with no increase in the procedural non-filibuster cloture votes, which we don't. In this case what we see is that the 110th, 111th and 112th Senates just went cloture crazy across the board. There was no significant change in the AMOUNT of legislation introduced across the Congressional sessions, and certianly not a doubling.

So, here is another interesting statistic to point us to the cause of the spike in cloture votes starting in the 110th Senate:

109th Senate, cloture requests by Senator:
Frist - 50
McConnell - 12
Bennett - 2
Sessions - 1
Reid - 1
Domenici - 1
Mikulski - 1

110th Senate, cloture requests by Senator:
Reid - 123
McConnell - 12
Whitehouse - 1
Dodd - 1
Casey - 1
Bingaman - 1

111th Senate, cloture requests by Senator:
Reid - 130
McConnell - 2
Dodd - 2
Durbin - 2

Huh, It would appear that Harry Reid is simply cloture happy. He is calling more cloture votes than any Senate leader in history, and getting roughly the same mix of results as previous Senate leaders.

Finally, on the "80% of legislation in 2009 was filibustered" remark that I see so often thrown out in left wing articles. It is used as if it is so undeniable that there is no need to show the math. I have to do one last quick throttling of this lie that won't die.

When these claims of filibuster -- that is the failed "cloture=filibuster" argument -- come up, the speakers are quick to point out that in the 111th Congress there were 136 "filibusters". Well, while that number is certainly higher than years past, does it equate to 80% of all legislation? No. It isn't even 80% of bills passed:

Bills Passed: 1047
Cloture votes: 136
Ratio: 12%

.. and if you go by my accounting of actual filibusters and threats then only 5% of those votes were actually in danger of a filibuster. I have no idea what kind of math they use to reach that 80%, and nobody seems all that interested in showing their work. So please, when you hear anyone spout this bit of nonsense out, ask them to show their work.

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