The article called Senate tied in knots by filibusters, by Margaret Talev for McClatchy Newspapers, has been the subject of some discussion in Left Blogovia, as it shows that (a) the filibuster, or rather the threat of filibuster and demand for cloture vote, has been increasingly frequent for almost twenty years now, and (2) the current Republican minority in the Senate is using that procedural block far, far more frequently even than that. Matt Yglesias notes that this is particularly odd because it is being used by a party with a sitting second-term President. This isn’t a last-ditch effort to prevent law from actually being made, because the President would presumably veto such laws. Mr. Yglesias dislikes the filibuster in the first place, and like other people has emphasized the need for more than three-fifths of the Senate to be out of Republican hands. Which led me to wonder how often a filibuster-proof majority has been held in one party.
It seems that before 1917, the filibuster was absolute. One senator could talk a bill to death, if his lungs held out. In 1917, they allowed a supermajority of two-thirds to stop debate; that was 64 Senators until 1958, and 67 after. In 1975, that rule was reduced to three-fifths, or 60 Senators.
According to the Senate’s list of Party Division in the Senate, the Republicans had as many as 59 seats in the Senate after the 1920 election, but have not had sixty seats since then. The Democrats had more than sixty from 1935-1942, topping out at an amazing 76 seats (out of 96) after the 1936 election. After the 1956 election, the first with 100 Senators, the Dems had 65 seats, then 64, 66, 68 (more than 2/3), then 64 seats until the 1968 election brought them down to 57. After the 1974 Watergate election the Democrats had 60, and 61 in the following election. And that’s it for beating sixty seats.
So there have been very few times that the majority party had enough seats to overcome a filibuster. Essentially, the 94th and 95th Congresses after they brought the line down to three-fifths, the 89th Congress with the Democrats holding 68 seats. The Republicans held more than 3/5ths of the Senate from 1901 to 1911, by the way, but that’s not relevant to the filibuster, I just wanted to make it clear that the Republicans do have Senatorial dominance in their history, too. They never quite made two-thirds, but they came close.
I know none of this has to do with the question of why filibusters have become so much more frequent. In fact, the history is misleading because the Parties have become much more national in the last quarter-century; for the previous hundred years or so there really were substantial regional parties within each Party, which made for coalitions across Party lines that are not now really possible. Still, I thought it was interesting.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,