Broken Government: Conservatives Keep Up Record Pace Of Obstruction

Isaiah J. Poole

A Center for American Progress report this week chronicles just how obstructionist conservatives in the Senate continue to be as they use the filibuster to block reform efforts in the Senate.

Scott Lilly elaborates on a trend that we began chronicling more than two years ago as conservatives announced that routine use of the filibuster would become their political strategy. They would flip-flop from being the party that insisted on “the up-or-down vote” to the party sometimes willing to block votes at all costs.

Lilly chronicles a steadily rising occurrence of filibusters in the Senate, from an average of 20 a year in the 1970s and 1980s to an average of 36 a year up to the 2006 elections. But that dramatically changed when the Democrats took control of the Senate in 2006.

To borrow a term from “Star Wars,” filibustering has gone from overdrive to “hyperspace.” Filibusters are now commonly used to block not only legislation the minority opposes, but to block legislation the minority does not necessarily have strong feelings on but will use to place a stick in the spokes of the legislative wheel anytime an opportunity presents itself.

The effect is that a 60-vote supermajority has become a routine requirement for moving virtually any legislation through the Senate. That has fueled the accurate perception that the Senate is “broken,” though only sporadically have Senate leaders clearly stated that it is Senate conservatives who have broken it.

Statistics maintained by the Senate show that so far in the 111th Congress, starting last year, there have been 80 cloture motions filed to end filibusters, a pace that could match, if not exceed, the 110th Congress, which saw a total of 139 cloture motions filed to end filibusters. There were more than twice as many cloture motions in the 110th Congress as there were in the 109th.

Those numbers, as Lilly notes, do not take into account the invisible filibusters that never result in floor action but have the same effect of allowing a conservative minority to kill legislation.

Cloture is filed against only those threatened filibusters that the Senate leadership has the floor time and possible votes to overcome. Much legislation and many presidential appointments are killed before they can be reported by committee either because 60 votes cannot be obtained or the cost in time to the Senate schedule is too great to warrant the effort required to defeat a threatened filibuster.

Lilly is proposing some modest measures to address the abuse of the filibuster, recommending that filibusters not be allowed on appropriations bills and confirmations. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., wants a broader filibuster reform, which he wants to see enacted at the beginning of the next congressional session. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has said this week that he is prepared to hold hearings on the subject as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.

In the meantime, it is important for activists to keep the conservative abuse of the filibuster at the forefront as public anger builds over what they view as a dysfunctional legislative branch. “Most rank-and-file senators will not willingly give up the extraordinary powers that the current system grants them,” Lilly concludes in his report. “And their leaders would probably cease to be leaders if they demanded such reforms. Change will probably only come when the public is made more aware of the costs of the current system and demands specific change.”

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