Below, I’ve examined 22 years of filibusters, and highlighted the 111th congress in more detail. What you’ll see is that there is no clear pattern of one party filibustering more than another. You’ll also see that the data are ambiguous enough that both parties have the ability to spin the message to blame the other party for excessive filibusters. Even though the two charts below definitively prove him wrong, I expect “someone” to spin the data to prove his case against Republicans in the comment thread (in order to avoid embarrassing him, I’ll refrain from naming my detractor).
How to Assign Ownership of a Filibuster
As usual, it’s important to start by defining our terms. The Senate's website doesn’t specifically refer to “filibusters,” but counts motions filed, votes on cloture, and cloture invoked. For example, in 2009-2010 a filibuster motion was filed 136 times, with 91 votes on cloture, where cloture was invoked 63 times. For our purposes, motions filed will count as an attempt to filibuster, and I won’t track the votes or successful attempts to defeat the filibuster (i.e. cloture invoked).
In understanding the filibuster process, you need to know that it takes 60 votes to kill a filibuster. Said another way, a minority party must have 41 votes to sustain a filibuster and avoid cloture. When a party has 41 members, all they have to do is threaten filibuster in order to bring the Senate to a halt. In the modern era, filibusters are, in reality, simply threats to filibuster and not Mr-Smith-Goes-to-Washington-type-speeches. Since the filibuster can only be sustained with 41 votes, my methodology is to credit the minority party holding the 41st vote with the filibusters.
Filibusters Since the 101st Congress
When we examine the Senate record since 1989, it’s clear that filibusters are a way of doing business for the minority party. The 107th congress breaks the pattern as a result of a 50/50 split over the two-year period, but the volume of filibusters is still within normal levels to that point.
The 110th congress was record-setting with its 139 filibusters by the Republicans, but it’s incorrect to say that this was a Republican plan to obstruct President Obama since he had yet to be elected. Consider this another complication in interpreting filibuster data since it’s not realistic to say that Republican Senators were trying to obstruct President Bush’s agenda.
Filibustering the 111th Congress
The 111th congress, during President Obama’s first two years, is a bit of a special case. In terms of my methodology, there were several factors that affected whether or not there were 41 Senators in the minority party at any given time, including: one disputed election, two deaths, one resignation, and one party change. While the 111th congress came close to matching the record-breaking filibuster total of the 110th congress, they are spread across both parties, as the following chart demonstrates.
It’s clear to me that someone who claims Republicans have obstructed President Obama with a record number of filibusters simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Like just about everything in politics, both parties take advantage of the tools at their disposal to accomplish their ends, and prevent the opposition from accomplishing theirs. Sounds like politics as usual to me.