This past Wednesday, for the second time in almost as many months, Senator Jim Webb, D-VA, introduced a piece of Iraq war legislation that failed to pass the Senate despite gaining a majority of its votes.
Technically speaking, Webb's measure - which would have given soldiers as much time at home as their previous tour deployed - was not filibustered. Prior to its introduction, Senate Democrats and Republicans agreed that, in order to avoid a procedural tit-for-tat, there would be a 60-vote threshold on all Defense Authorization amendments. Nevertheless, seeing his pet project defeated for the second time, even with the support of 55 other Senators, left Webb a bit steamed.
"I would say to my colleagues that the American people are watching us today, and they are watching closely," the Virginian declared. "They are tired of the posturing that is giving the Congress such a bad reputation. And they are tired of the procedural strategies designed to protect politicians from accountability."
Using obstructionism to defeat or delay an opponent's agenda is nothing new in Washington. Over the past five years, there have been more than 260 threats of a legislative filibuster in the Senate. But the numbers suggest that with Democrats now in power, such tactics are dramatically on the rise. Sixty-four times this year legislation has come before the Senate requiring 60 votes or more to pass - almost twice as many as all of last year, when the balance of power was switched, and nearly three times as much as 2005.
With more than three months left to go in the current Congress, the U.S. Senate has already seen 45 cloture motions -- measures introduced by a senator requiring a 3/5 majority to end debate. Twenty-three of these motions have been rejected. In addition, there have been 19 votes - such as that on the Webb amendment - in which the Senate has voluntarily agreed to work along a three-fifths threshold, thereby avoiding the cumbersome process of invoking cloture (which requires a 30-hour waiting period). Last year, such a procedural move occurred just twice.
Combined, these methods of forcing super-majority votes have made the current Congress a paradigm of political gridlock. Among the legislation that has succumbed to natural and pseudo-filibustering are amendments to advance stem cell research, a bill that would have reduced the cost of attending college, multiple pieces of legislation designed to facilitate a drawdown of troops from Iraq, and a provision that would have allowed the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate drug prices with drug companies.
"This is part of a longer trend, whereby 60 votes are now required for anything significant," Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said to the Huffington Post. "It used to be that requiring 60 votes, members had to bring in cots and have a real filibuster. Now the minority simply says no, we're not going let you bring that up. It's the way the process has changed on the Hill."
Not every measure that died at the hands of the three-fifth's threshold was tied to a Democrat. An amendment introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, that would have, among other things, criminalized the recruitment of terrorists and "expanded the time frame that the Homeland Security Department could detain certain illegal immigrants," failed to overcome a cloture vote.
"One of the reason [filibusters] are on the rise is they are a very closely divide Congress," Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the Huffington Post. "[Majority Leader] Harry Reid knows where the votes are but he continues to push issues that he will only get 50 to 60 votes... Republicans, in turn, have used it to block legislation that would be harmful to our national security."
On the whole, the GOP has proven successful in using procedural tactics to drastically slow down Democratic priorities. As speaker of the Montana Legislature, Senator John Tester, D-MT, saw more than 1,000 bills in a three-month period. In Washington, the number of bills sent by Congress to the President so far this year has numbered 89.