Lamar Filibusters Reality

lamarupSeeking to fend off a tea-party primary challenger, Sen. Lamar Alexander has been warming up for 2014 by rebranding himself as hostile to the kind of pragmatic moderation that once framed his centrist political persona. With an op-ed in the Washington Post late last week assailing the move by Senate Democrats to do away with the filbuster on executive and judicial nominations, Alexander demonstrates he is also working hard to rebrand himself as hostile to facts and reality.

The Post piece is a model of intellectual dishonesty. Alexander says Democrats built the change in Senate rules on “filmsy excuses, many of which are untrue.” Let’s look at two of them. Lamar writes:

Excuse No. 1: President Obama’s appointees have been unfairly denied seats by failed cloture votes, or filibusters. According to the Congressional Research Service, no Supreme Court nominee has been defeated by filibuster in the Senate … The number of federal district judge and Cabinet nominees defeated by filibuster? Zero. Regarding sub-Cabinet nominees, there were two for President Obama, three for George W. Bush and two for Bill Clinton. That’s it. … As for appeals court judges, Republican filibusters have blocked five, but that happened only after Democrats first blocked five.

The dishonesty here is in the phrase “denied seats by failed cloture votes, or filibusters.” A cloture vote is a vote to limit debate, which effectively ends a filibuster. But filibusters don’t always (or even usually) end in cloture votes one way or the other. By measuring filibusters as a count of failed cloture votes, Alexander is not only dissembling, he is doing exactly what the very Congressional Research Service report (pdf) he cites tells him not to do. According to the CRS, it is “erroneous” to equate cloture motion outcomes with filibusters:

Filibusters can occur without cloture being attempted, and cloture can be attempted when no filibuster is evident. Often today, moreover, it appears that Senate leaders generally avoid bringing to the floor nominations on which a filibuster seems likely. In such cases there are no means by which to identify the merely threatened filibuster.

Cloture votes don’t tally filibusters, the CRS goes on to say, because “a filibuster is a matter of intent; any proceedings on the floor might constitute part of a filibuster if they are undertaken with the purpose of blocking or delaying a vote.” So a better measure of GOP obstructionism regarding Obama’s nominees is found in delay – the amount of time nominees wait for confirmation.

Alexander takes up this angle … and once again mangles reality:

Excuse No. 2: President Obama’s nominees have waited too long for confirmation. According to the Congressional Research Service, Obama’s second-term Cabinet nominees have been confirmed at about the same pace as those of Presidents Clinton and Bush. This year, the Senate has confirmed 36 of Obama’s second-term nominees to circuit and district courts, compared with 14 for Bush at this point in 2005.

The distortion here is really basic. Exploring whether nominees “have waited too long for confirmation” by comparing the raw number of confirmed second-term Obama appointments with the number for Bush at same point in his term is nonsensical since it fails to account for differences in numbers of vacancies and says nothing about actual time nominees have waited for Senate action. Actual data on confirmation delays tell the story Lamar doesn’t want you to hear:

confirmchart

Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of a filibuster rule that empowers legislative minorities to slow confirmations of executive appointments. Unreasonable people (like Lamar Alexander) can torture the facts to invent a false argument about the effects of such a rule.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

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