THE FILIBUSTER: WEAPON OF OBSTRUCTION

Here’s issue #35 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 6/10/12. It focuses on the filibuster as an important problem contributing to the gridlock in Congress.

The use of the filibuster [1]or the threat of a filibuster – by the minority party in the Senate to block action has become much more frequent in the last six years, accelerating a trend that goes back to the 1970s. “The filibuster … became a routine weapon of obstruction” according to Mann and Ornstein in their Washington Post article of April 27 [2] (see Newsletter issue #32). Traditionally, it was used to block legislation, such as civil rights laws. More recently, since 2005, a filibuster or the threat of one has been used to block presidential nominations of judges. [3] Most recently, it has been used to block presidential nominations for positions in the executive branch and to obstruct progress in general.

The official Senate statistics only track the formal motions to end a filibuster, not the threats to filibuster, so they understate the use and impact of the filibuster. In the last six years, since the Democrats gained control of the Senate, the occurrence of formal motions to end filibusters by the Republican minority has doubled (average per two year Congressional session of 138 vs. 65 in the previous four years when the Democrats were the minority). The pattern of the Republicans increasing the use of the filibuster also occurred in the 1987-94 (average of 58 vs. 38 in the previous six years with a Democratic minority) and in 1971-80 (average of 32 vs. 7 or fewer in all previous Congressional sessions). [4]

Presidents used to receive routine approval of personnel for high-ranking executive branch positions that require Senate approval because it was seen as the President’s right to build his own team. Recently, however, the Republicans have blocked some of President Obama’s executive branch appointments. Most notably, they threatened a filibuster to block his nomination of anyone to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). This body was created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed in the wake of the 2008 collapse of the financial sector, to protect consumers from abuses particularly in mortgage lending, but also in credit card and banking practices. To prevent the CFPB from functioning effectively, the Senate Republicans threatened to filibuster the appointment the head of the CFPB, first Elizabeth Warren (so Obama never formally nominated her) and then Richard Cordray (former Ohio Attorney General). Obama eventually appointed Cordray without Senate approval when the Senate was in recess so the agency could function. [5]

On the judicial front, Republican filibusters and other delaying tactics have created a situation where nearly one in nine federal judgeships sits empty (80 positions in the District and Circuit Courts), and nearly half of those vacancies are in courts so overburdened that they have been deemed judicial emergencies. As-of March, there were 22 judicial nominees who had been approved by the Judiciary Committee and were waiting yes or no votes in the full Senate. Sixteen had strong bipartisan support in the Committee, having received unanimous support or one dissenting vote. The wait for full Senate votes on committee-approved nominees is averaging over 3 months. For comparison, under President George W. Bush the wait was less than one month. Of the 22 filibusters of district court nominees that have occurred in the last 60 years, 19 have been of Obama nominees.

On the legislative front, the filibuster threat has been used to block the legislation preventing a doubling of the interest on student loans, the Paycheck Fairness Act promoting gender equity in wages, attempts to extend unemployment benefits, the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, the DREAM Act providing a path to citizenship for immigrant children brought to the country when they were quite young, and the DISCLOSE Act that requires increased disclosure of political contributions. The last three of these had passed in the House of Representatives and would have passed in the Senate except for a filibuster. [6]

As Republicans filibuster or threaten to filibuster 70% of the major legislation in the Senate, not only is important legislation blocked, but laws that ultimately pass are watered down, often hopelessly convoluted, and sometimes include irrelevant or wasteful add-ons or earmarks as necessary to get the 60 vote super-majority needed to move to a vote. The filibuster incentivizes grandstanding and the power of small minorities (sometimes an individual Senator’s threat of a filibuster) rather than effective governance. [7]

The next issue of the newsletter will examine efforts to limit the impact of the filibuster.


[1]       A filibuster occurs when one or more Senators refuse to end debate on a piece of legislation or other matter. It requires a super-majority of 60 out of 100 votes to close off debate (cloture) and allow a vote on the bill or other matter.

[2]       Mann, T.E., andOrnstein,N.J., 4/27/12, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem,” The Washington Post. Adapted from their book “It’s even worse than it looks: How the American Constitutional system collided with the new politics of extremism.”

[3]       Wikipedia, retrieved 6/8/12, “Filibuster in the U.S. Senate”

[4]       U.S. Senate, retrieved 6/8/12, “Senate action on cloture motions,” http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/reference/cloture_motions/clotureCounts.htm

[5]       Editorial, 1/28/12, “Filibustering nominees must end,” The New York Times

[6]       Wong, S., 5/14/12, “Group sues Senate to scrap filibuster,” Politico

[7]       Guess, S., 1/21/10, “Filibusters are strangling the Senate,” The Guardian

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