The Policy Consequences of Senate Obstruction

Tony Carrk offers a guide to Senate obstruction in this report, including the tools used to obstruct and the impact.

The Senate has established rules for members to delay legislation, but recently the Republican Party has used these rules to the point of rendering the government dysfunctional. (AP/Lawrence Jackson)
The Senate has established rules for members to delay legislation, but recently the Republican Party has used these rules to the point of rendering the government dysfunctional. (AP/Lawrence Jackson)

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Unprecedented obstruction in Congress

Congress, particularly the U.S. Senate, boasts established rules for members to delay legislation. These rules have historically been reserved to ensure proper deliberation and consideration on the most important issues facing the nation. Recently, however, the Republican Party embraced these obstructionist tactics to subvert progressives so much that they have rendered the government dysfunctional.

This report is intended as a guide to understanding obstruction in the Senate. It will examine the tools used by Republicans to prevent the effective functioning of government via the filibuster and holds, how they’ve used these different tools in both policy debates and executive appointments, and which special interests benefit from such obstructionism.

In addition, this report attempts to take the debate out of the abstract and focus on its real life consequences. Recent obstruction has not only stopped Congress from providing help to people who need it the most, but also has kept key national security positions vacant and has prevented the Senate from considering legislation with significant bipartisan support.

The health reform debate highlighted the myriad of ways lawmakers can obstruct legislation. What resulted was 14 months of partisan gridlock and inaction. We are beginning to witness the same types of tactics as the Senate debates reforming Wall Street.

Obstruction tools: Cloture and the filibuster

Under the rules of the Senate, senators have the prerogative of unlimited debate that cannot be cut off unless a certain number of senators agree to end debate; currently that number is 60 senators. This is known as “invoking cloture.” If 60 senators do not invoke cloture by voting to end debate, a bill is successfully filibustered.

The filibuster is not part of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the “cloture rule,” Senate Rule XXII, was not formally adopted until 1917. From 1917 through 1970, senators voted to invoke cloture an average of two times per Congress. Voting on cloture became more frequent since that time. What we have witnessed in the past several years, however, is a dramatic increase in the number of times the Senate has voted to invoke cloture. There were a record 112 votes on cloture motions in the 110th Congress (2007-08), more than double the amount of cloture votes from the 109th Congress. The current Congress has already had 49 cloture votes.

Obstruction tools: The hold

Another tool senators can use to obstruct legislation is a “hold.” A hold is a way for one senator to block legislation or nominations indefinitely. It indicates that a senator does not want a particular bill to be brought up for consideration and is willing to object to any “unanimous consent” requests to proceed on the bill, meaning the Senate will have to vote on these measures and it will in many cases be subject to filibustering. According to the Congressional Research Service, the origin of holds “appears lost in the mists of history. They probably evolved from the early traditions of comity, courtesy, reciprocity, and accommodation that characterized the Senate’s work.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), for example, recently placed a “blanket hold” on at least 70 of President Obama’s nominations, a move that Senate aides said was “a far more aggressive use of the power than is normal.” Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, noted that “one senator can subvert the entire democratic process. We don’t have the Senate confirming political appointees promptly, and that means decisions are not made at agencies.”

Download the full report (pdf)

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Tony Carrk

Vice President, Policy and Research