Monday, July 23, 2007

Who likes the filibuster now?

Well, I hadn't anticipated using this blog again--my personal site has been pretty much in permanent-under-construction status since starting my current job.

Anyway, with the recent filibuster in the Senate, I decided to re-examine some old history and congressional records--with surprising results. Last Wednesday, I decided to try to present the results to some sites like ThinkProgress or Crooks & Liars, but nobody has gotten back to me so I decided to dust this blog off.



Recently there has been quite a bit of discussion regarding "filibusters" in the senate, so I set out to try to check the record. Just how much was this tactic used and who probably used it?

In the last several years, most talk of filibusters have actually been about cloture votes, where the Senate needs 60 members to vote showing that they are ready to make a final vote on the subject. Most notably, during 2005 Democrats used this method to block the appointment of several judicial nominees, and the Republicans threatened to change the rules via the so-called "Nuclear Option" to bypass it.

Now, Democrats have a slim Senate majority, and Republicans are using some of the same tactics party leaders once decried.

But how much are they doing it? Let's look at the numbers for the Senate, considering when it was, how many days they were working, and how often a cloture vote failed. I'll use the acronym "FPD" to describe the assumed number of "Filibusters per day" of Senate activity. (Note that I had the rows horizontally sized to make a visible chart, but blogger strips out style attributes.)

Year Days Failed Clotures FPD
2001 173 8
0.046
2002 149 13
0.087
2003 167 22
0.132
2004 133 14
0.105
2005 159 5
0.031
2006 138 12
0.087
2007 108* 19
0.176
*Ongoing session



One important caveat to these statistics is that I cannot say what number of failed cloture happened specifically to block legislation. But with the basic assumption that the minority party cannot initiate these votes and has the most reason to block them, some interesting numbers still emerge.

Period FPD
2005: Republican's "Nuclear Option" threat
0.031
2001-2006 average: Democrats in minority
0.081
2007: Republicans in minority
0.176



  • Compared to 2005, when Republicans were threatening to change the rules, FPD is 5.67 times higher now that Republicans are the minority.

  • Compared to the Republican-majority 2001-2006 years, overall FPD is 2.18 times higher.

  • The current year has the highest FPD than any of the previous years shown.



The implications are not good for Senate Republicans: It suggests that—now that positions are reversed—they are willing to filibuster more often than the Democrats previously labeled "obstructionists" for doing the same thing.


Sources:

Update: Ideally, I'd prefer to replace "failed cloture votes" with "votes where most of the votes against it came from the minority party, and where most of the minority party participated". It would be a much better metric. Unfortunately, it's difficult to get those figures from the Senate records, although if enough people show interest I may reconsider the effort.

Update: As 2007 draws to a close, I wanted to update the stats for 2007: The FPD ficgure is virtually unchanged, following the level I calculated back when I wrote this post. (~1% increase of the FPD)

35 comments:

Nate said...

The major flaw in these statistics (which are still really interesting) is that you don't need a cloture vote to stop a filibuster. It's possible Republicans from 2000-2006 used tactics other than a formal cloture vote to stop filibusters. A strong cloakroom presence can do just as good a job, if not better, than a floor cloture vote. Just something to think about: a rise in cloture votes is not directly correlated to a rise in filibusters.

Terr said...

True, there are always details and fuzzy unquantifiable things for these political manuevers.

I had hoped to further break down the statistics. For example, looking at cloture votes where >80% of the nay-voters were members of the minority party, regardless of vote outcome... This would have more clearly highlighted places where the minority party "dug in their heels", successful or otherwise.

However the layout and format of the Senate site is really a pain to parse, and unlike the House they don't seem to show clear tallies by party affilation, so it's either a lot of rote research and a spreadsheet or else a lot of time writing a script to parse their tables and follow them through to the vote stats.

Nate said...

The Senate is definitely a tricky being. There is a much greater level of behind-the-scenes action in the Senate as compared with the House.

I'm certainly not as familiar with the data-gathering as you must be, but perhaps you could combine a list of Senators and their known affiliations into a macro or program designed to assign a party value to their votes.

If you're interested in making this into a genuine study, you might do some additional research into the political science literature surrounding the US Congress. Richard Fenno of the University of Rochester comes to mind. He has a large number of Senate contacts who might be willing to speak with you (if they can do it apolitically, that's another story!) about filibuster trends through the years.

How far back does the Senate site's data go? Could you extend this until the beginning of reliable data? That would have two desirable effects: it would give your study more data points and also help to make you appear more moderate in your discussion.

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