Presenting the filibuster challenge!


What should the Post have written: Kevin Drum almost always loses us when he starts talking semantics. This doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

But so it was when he extended the recent discussion about last week’s gun bill votes. This is the question at issue:

When Manchin-Toomey got 54 votes in the senate and failed, should that have been called a filibuster? Drum says yes, thanks to the “academic” definition of filibuster he offers in the second highlighted part of this passage:
DRUM (4/19/13): The key question is a semantic one. What's the definition of a filibuster in the U.S. Senate? There are basically two approaches to this:

The strict rules-based approach. During the early 70s, in response to the increasing complexity of Senate life, a set of procedures emerged for conducting and resolving filibusters. Senators (usually from the minority party) were no longer required to actually speak to sustain a filibuster. Instead, they signaled their intent to filibuster by notifying their party leader to place a hold on a bill. Once this was done, the majority leadership would either negotiate a compromise or else schedule a cloture vote. If the cloture vote succeeded, the bill would proceed. If it failed, the bill died.

The broader academic approach. In the academic literature, the definition of a filibuster is broader. Here's Gregory Kroger: "Filibustering is delay, or the threat of delay, in a legislative chamber to prevent a final outcome for strategic gain. The key features are the purpose (delay) and the motive (gain) and NOT specifying the legislature or the method."

Under the strict rules-based definition, what happened last week wasn't a filibuster. There was no hold and there was no cloture vote. Under the broader definition, what happened was clearly a filibuster. The method wasn't the classic one, but there was certainly a threat of delay in order to prevent a final outcome (passage of the background check amendment). The resolution was a unanimous consent agreement rather than a cloture vote, but that's immaterial. It's still a filibuster.
According to Drum, what happened was a filibuster, based on that second definition from “the academic literature.” But the definition he offers from Gregory Kroger strikes us as extremely vague and very hard to parse. Aside from Kroger himself, who ever said that “filibuster” could be defined that way?

Hence, our incomparable question:

Isn’t it time for participants to take The Filibuster Challenge? Last week, the Washington Post made no attempt to explain why Manchin-Toomey failed in the senate despite getting 54 votes. Readers of the Washington Post had to decide for themselves.

The New York Times tried to explain, but its attempt at explanation was extremely fuzzy.

With that record of mainstream failure behind us, why not take The Filibuster Challenge? How should the Washington Post have written its front-page report?

In the Post's report, O’Keeke and Rucker discussed the failure of a series of amendments to the gun bill, including Manchin-Toomey. But they never explained why the 54 votes for Manchin-Toomey wasn’t enough.

How should that report have been written?

We’re not sure we understand this topic well enough to make a submission, although we may give it a try tomorrow. But obviously, the Washington Post should have explained this point.

What should the Post have written?

Final requirement: No fair describing the defeat of Manchin-Toomey only. Several Republican amendments also lost that day with more than 50 votes.

O’Keeke and Rucker report one such failure as follows: “An NRA-backed measure that clarified gun-trafficking laws fell short, with just 58 votes.”

In the case of that amendment, why wasn’t 58 votes enough? If we’re taking the Buster Challenge, that needs to be explained too.

What should the Washington Post have said? This is a question that needs resolving. Please take the Buster Challenge!


  1. I'll do the headline:

    From Mr.Smith Goes To Washington to Kabuki Theater: How Bipartisan Compromise Plays In Washington

  2. It's not easy to do it in a few words. It takes work to keep whittling it down to digestible length for ordinary news reports, but not a whole lot to do at least somewhat better as with version 2 below (before the bracketed additions). Very hard to do without assuming basic familiarity with the filibuster rule.

    1. "Although passing a bill in theory requires a simple majority vote, routine use of the Senate 'filibuster' rule, mainly by Republicans to block Obama proposals, has resulted in a de facto 60-vote requirement in the Senate for important legislation. [In this case, each party threatened to block the other's preferred bill, so the parties agreed in advance on a 60-vote requirement for any new gun legislation]."

    2. ". . . with 58 votes, two short of the filibuster-driven de facto 60-vote requirement for important bills in the last few years [alt. since Obama took office]. [In this case, the democrats also used the filibuster rule to block NRA-sponsored bills]."

    1. I always get confused about this though. I recall that the Bush tax cuts were passed with fifty votes and Dick Cheney's tie-breaker. Where was the filibuster then? What has changed? Is it really only that republicans have been abusing the filibuster lately? In the past, did they have a gentleman's agreements to use filibusters only rarely?

    2. When Democrats are behind an issue that would hurt the people who pay their salaries, I'm sorry, contribute to their campaigns, they will find a way to lose it narrowly. (Although, sometimes they will compromise before their initial offer. They like to mix it up.)

    3. Bush tax cuts were passed as a budget item under reconciliation and were passed in the senate by one vote. Cheney's.

  3. Since all the Senators knew in advance that 60 votes were required for passage and knew how thes would turn out it's impossible to say how many votes any of the provisions would have received if a simple majority would have sufficed for passage. Politicians play games with their votes all the time. I wonder how many votes that NRA backed proposal would actually have received if the issue had been in doubt and the votes were for something more than show.

    1. If you mean the concealed carry amendment vs background checks, it was 57 to 54.

    2. I'm sorry, Anon 3:59pm. Upon rereading your post I see that I missed your point.

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  5. Not a filibuster. The votes were on amendments to the underlying gun bill, not cloture votes, so there was no filibuster. Instead the 60 vote threshold was the result of an agreement between Reid and McConnell to move the gun legislation expeditiously. Both sides whipped hard so no amendments passed and Reid withdrew the bill.

  6. The Senators that said they rejected the bill because of "flaws" didn't want their names attached to any amendment of a bill the NRA opposed on principal.
    They made no attempt to fix it.
    Because they are cowards. (Jeff Flake in particular.)
    I have followed Flake's career since he ran for the House promising he would serve for one term only.
    He was a liar then and is a coward now.
    Rich Carmona is ten times the man Jeff Flake will never be.

    1. ...[the Senators who rejected the gun control bill] are cowards

      Maybe not. Consider that President Obama said the gun control bill had 90% support.

      How much courage does it take for a Senator to vote for a bill supported by 90% of the public?

      Would a coward take a position supported by only 10% of the public?

    2. Not to mention the fact that the WH and Reid were willing to jettison the entire thing rather than to make compromises that would have allowed Republicans to shape some of the legislation too.

      As a ever, I'm at a loss as to how this action fits with their extreme rhetoric that denounces all dissent as cowardly and even the abetting of murder.

    3. Arm the New Black Panthers!

    4. Suffice to say, they've settled on fly leather jackets and fresh-to-death berets.

  7. Bob lost me the first time around when he devoted dozens of paragraphs to asking whether there had been a filibuster of the gun-control bill. I suspect most people understand by now that the minority party can block a bill by demanding there be 60 votes in favor, but I certainly confess that I don't really care too much about what it is called or should be called, or even the exact procedural details. Would anybody really be the wiser if the media agreed on some specific terminology?

    1. Actually, Sen. Reid requested the 60 vote threshold in order to keep Republican amendments to the bill from passing.

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  10. Bob is making progress. If he doesn't understand Kevin's explanation, that doesn't mean Kevin is wrong. Now maybe he'll grasp this: if he doesn't understand a physicist's explanation of relativity or quantum mechanics, it could be that the physicist isn't a failing elitist but that the subject is hard.

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  13. Please take the Buster Challenge!

    "Corporatist whores win again. And you lose."

    Of course, the WaPo will never write this, because they're on the other side.

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