Analysis: Filibuster and cloture stats show comparable use by parties

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In response to a Saint Petersblog column on the polarization of political parties over time, a reader asked for some statistics on the use of filibuster over time.  To satisfy Lauren’s curiosity, and my own, I offer the following:

The history of filibuster is best measured by the use of cloture — the only formal procedure that Senate rules provide for shutting down a filibuster.   The following chart depicts the attempted and successful use of cloture over time.  Important to note, in 1975, the number of votes required to invoke cloture was changed from two-thirds of those present and voting to three-fifths of the total Senate membership, making the measure more likely to succeed (and therefore, more likely to be attempted).

Red background years represent Republican control of the Senate while blue backgrounds represent years of Democratic control. Generally speaking, the use of cloture can be assumed to represent a reaction to minority party filibuster.  In other words, the use of cloture in “red” years would be in response to the use of filibuster by Democrats, and the use of cloture  in “blue years” would be in response to the use of filibuster by Republicans.

With partisan control and cloture use in the same visual field, it appears that the frequency of filibuster spiked first when used by the Republican minority in the early 1970s, steadily increased under control of both parties, and then spiked again in use by the Democratic minority between 2004 and 2008.  Since that time, the frequency of filibuster/cloture has declined — although it remains far greater than in decades past.

cloture chart

Karen Cyphers, PhD, is a public policy consultant, researcher, and mother to three daughters.