The Myth of Democratic Super Majority.

One of the standard Republican talking points is that the Democrats had a filibuster-proof, super majority for two years between 2008 and 2010. This talking point is usually trotted out when liberals complain that the Republicans filibustered virtually every piece of legislation proposed by Obama or the Democrats during Obama’s presidency. The implication is that Democrats had ample opportunity to pass legislation and that the reason they didn’t pass more legislation doesn’t have anything to do with the Republicans.

It is also used to counter any argument that Republican legislation, (passed during the six years of total Republican control,) has anything to do with today’s problems. They claim that the Democrats had a super majority for two years and passed all kinds of legislation, (over Republican objection and filibuster,) that completely undid all Republican policies and legislation, and this absolves them from today’s problems.

The Truth is that the Democrats only had a filibuster-proof majority for 60 working days during that period, insufficient time to undo even a small portion of the legislation passed during six years of Republican control. Here are the details:

To define terms, a Filibuster-Proof Majority or Super Majority is the number of votes required to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. According to current Senate rules, 60 votes are required to overcome a filibuster.

Here is a time-line of the events  after the 2008 election:

1. BALANCE BEFORE THE ELECTION. In 2007 – 2008 the balance in the Senate was 51-49 in favor of the Democrats. On top of that, there was a Republican president who would likely veto any legislation the Republicans didn’t like. Not exactly a super majority.

2. BIG GAIN IN 2008, BUT STILL NO SUPER MAJORITY. Coming out the 2008 election, the Democrats made big gains, but they didn’t immediately get a Super Majority. The Minnesota Senate race required a recount and was not undecided for more than six months. During that time, Norm Coleman was still sitting in the Senate and the Balance 59-41, still not a Super Majority.

3. KENNEDY GRAVELY ILL. Teddy Kennedy casthis last vote in April and left Washington for good around the first of May. Technically he could come back to Washington vote on a pressing issue, but in actual fact, he never returned, even to vote on the Sotomayor confirmation. That left the balance in the Senate 58-41, two votes away from a super majority.

4. STILL NO SUPER MAJORITY. In July, Al Frankin was finally declared the winner and was sworn in on July 7th, 2009, so the Democrats finally had a Super Majority of 60-40 six and one-half months into the year. However, by this point, Kennedy was unable to return to Washington even to participate in the Health Care debate, so it was only a technical super majority because Kennedy could no longer vote and the Senate does not allow proxies. Now the actual actual balance of voting members was 59-40 not enough to overcome a Republican filibuster.

5. SENATE IS IN RECESS. Even if Kennedy were able to vote, the Senate went into summer recess three weeks later, from August 7th to September 8th.

6. KENNEDY DIES. Six weeks later, on Aug 26, 2009 Teddy Kennedy died, putting the balance at 59-40. Now the Democrats don’t even have technical super majority.

7. FINALLY, A SUPER MAJORITY! Kennedy’s replacement was sworn in on September 25, 2009, finally making the majority 60-40, just enough for a super majority.

8. SENATE ADJOURNS. However the Senate adjourned for the year on October 9th, only providing 11 working days of super majority, from September 25th to October 9th.

9. SPECIAL SESSIONS. During October, November and December, the Senate had several special sessions to deal with final passage of ACA and Budget appropriations.

October = 13th – 15th, 20th – 22nd, 27th, 29th = 8 days
November = 2nd, 4th, 5th, 9th  16th, 17th, 19th, 21st = 8 days
December = 1st, 3rd  - 8th, 10th – 13th, 15th – 18th, 19th, 21st – 24th = 20 days

Total Special Session Days = 36.

8. SCOTT BROWN ELECTED. Scott Brown was elected on January 19th 2010. The Senate was in session for 10 days in January, but Scott Brown wasn’t sworn into office on February 4th, so the Democrats only had 13 days of super majority in 2010.

Summary:

Regular Session: 11 working days
Special Session: 36 working days
Lame Duck Session:  13 working days

The Democrats only had 60 days of Super Majority between 2008 and 2010.

Discussion: One of the central themes of the Republican argument is that the Democrats had a super majority for two full years and so they had plenty of time pass new legislation or undo any problems that were caused by six years of Republican control of all three branches of government. This is argument is used by the Republicans immunize themselves against any responsibility for ongoing problems that might have been caused by their policies.

However, the fact is that the Democrats had a super majority for a total of 60 days, which is no where near the two years that Republicans are always claiming.  On top of that, the period of Super Majority was split into short sessions, none of which was longer than five days. In addition, the special session time was entirely devoted to budget issues and Republican amendments to the ACA.

Given the glacial pace that business takes place in the Senate, this was way too little time for the Democrats pass any meaningful legislation, let alone get bills through committees and past all the obstructionistic tactics the Republicans were using to block legislation. No one can seriously expect that the Democrats could undo in 60 days all the damage that Republicans created in six years.

Further, these Super Majorities count Joe Lieberman as a Democrat even though he was by this time an Independent. Even though he was Liberal on some legislation, he was very conservative on other issues and opposed many of the key pieces of legislation the Democrats and Obama wanted to pass. For example, he was adamantly opposed to “Single Payer” health care and vowed to support a Republican Filibuster if it ever came to the floor. He even threatened to caucus with the Republicans if legislation came to the floor that he didn’t like.

Summary:

1. 1/07 – 12/08 –      51-49 – Ordinary Majority.
2. 1/09 – 7/14/09 – 59-41 – Ordinary Majority. (Coleman/Franklin Recount.)
3. 7/09 – 8/09 -      60-40 – Technical Super Majority, but since Kennedy is unable to vote, the Democrats can’t overcome a filibuster
4. 8/09 – 9/09 -      59-40 – Ordinary Majority. (Kennedy dies)
5. 9/09 – 12/24-   60-40 – Super Majority for 47 working days.
6. 1/10 – 2/10 –  60-40 – Super Majority for 13 working days

Total Time of the Democratic Super Majority: 60 Working days.

http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/vote_menu_111_1.htm
http://www.senate.gov/legislative/resources/pdf/2009_calendar.pdf
http://www.senate.gov/legislative/resources/pdf/2010_calendar.pdf
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Senate_election_in_Minnesota,_2008
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/111th_United_States_Congress

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18 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Anna M Stumpf says:

    I agree with your premise that the amount of time the president has had a super-majority is much shorter than his critics claim. But you need to get your facts straight. First, Al Franken was sworn in on July 7th, not July 14th. That adds on another 7 days.
    Second, Scott Brown was sworn in on Feb 4th, not in January.
    So the days of super majority go like this:
    July 2009 — 19 days
    Aug 2009 — 5 days (Kennedy was still alive, but really not voting, so don’t know if this should be counted.)
    Sep 2009 — 3 days (Working days after Kirk was sworn in on 9/25)
    Oct 2009 — 7 days total in session in Oct.
    Nov 2009 — 0 days -In recess all month
    Dec 2009 — 0 days – in recess all month
    Jan 2010 — 10 days not in recess
    Feb 2010 – 3 days before swearing in of Scott Brown

    That makes 47 days of effective super-majority, and even then there are certain Senators who are “Democratic” but can’t be counted on to vote with the Democrats, like Liebermann.

    But, if we are going to make arguments of this type, we must have the actually real facts to back it up and not exaggerate, like the Right Wing is doing.
    Here is the Senate calendars for 2009 and 2010
    http://www.senate.gov/legislative/resources/pdf/2009_calendar.pdf
    http://www.senate.gov/legislative/resources/pdf/2010_calendar.pdf

  2. Anna M Stumpf says:

    Typo in above comment — should have said 47 days, not 37. Oops!

  3. elfish says:

    Hi Anna, thanks for the corrections. I’ve edited your post so it says 47 days as you wanted.

    I did a little checking and Kennedy cast his last vote in April, 2009 and left Washington for good sometime around that time. He didn’t participate in the Health Care debate that summer, didn’t vote on Sotomayor’s confirmation on Aug 6th. I doubt he could have voted anytime after about the first of July so that’s probably cuts at least 10 days out of the total.

    I’ll do some more checking when I have time and rework the post to take into account your numbers.

  4. Anna M Stumpf says:

    Thanks elfish. If Kennedy wasn’t able to vote during July and August, then that means that even with Al Franken sworn in, there was not a filibuster-proof majority in the senate during those months. That would take 24 days off the count and bring the actual filibuster-proof days down to 23. The Republicans act like Obama has had 2 YEARS of super majority congress. How can we get the word out to voters about this. I wrote a letter to the Oregonian (where I live) and it was not published because it was not current news. There has got to be a way to counter the lies of the right with actual facts.

  5. elfish says:

    Hi Anna, I’ve finally fixed the dates and times in the article to reflect your numbers. I had different sources for the Senate recess days, but I think your numbers are more accurate so I used your links.

    I not sure how to get the information out. I post this information in various places on the internet, usually on Huffington Post and sometimes it does get passed around to different web pages. I’ve seen one of my posts on Huffington travel to dozens of web pages and forums. You can never predict who will see your posts and how far they may travel on the internet.

    Part of the reason I started this web site was to get this information out. I have lots of other, similar research that I’ve done, but I haven’t had the time to convert it into articles and post it. I’m hoping to more time later this year.

    Thanks very much for your data and input. It was very helpful!!

  6. Mark P. Kessinger says:

    I just stumbled upon this article after searching the web for a good, quick summary of the timeline, in order to refute an assertion of this myth by someone on Facebook. The lie has been resurrected, because Mitt Romney himself has been repeating it.

    Something I would add to your article, though, is the fact that even during the 24 (or 47) days one might count has Democrats having a supermajority, in reality they never had more than 58 seats. Getting to 60 votes required the cooperation of the two Independents, Sanders and Lieberman. While Sanders was a pretty reliable ally of Democrats, Lieberman was nursing a grudge against the party for having been shunned as the Democratic nominee in his home state of Connecticut in favor of a more liberal Democrat, forcing him to run as an independent. Thus, often as not, he was supporting GOP filibusters during that period. So, technically speaking, there never really was a true supermajority.

  7. elfish says:

    Excellent point. Lieberman made it clear he wouldn’t support any sort of single payer plan and would join the Republican filibuster if the Democrats put forward a single payer plan.

  8. dan brunner says:

    Great work. I have used this link a couple of times, and will try to get it out more.

  9. ChrisF says:

    Thanks… found you when googling “what is supermajority in congress” after reading dismaying comments, post-debate… I certainly did not remember any lengthy Dem control during the past 4 years… Will post this on my FB page…

  10. Sara Bell says:

    I’m usually to running a blog and i actually admire your content. The article has really peaks my interest. I’m going to bookmark your website and preserve checking for brand spanking new information.

  11. Bfriesen says:

    The Democrats never had any intention of changing the status quo. They campaigned on change, and the only thing that changed was what they did after they got elected.

    If they had wanted change, they could easily have had legislation ready by September of 2009. But they didn’t want change.

    OBAMA TO SINGLE PAYER ADVOCATES: DROP DEAD
    “President Obama’s White House made crystal clear this week: a Canadian-style, Medicare-for-all, single payer health insurance system is off the table.” —-Single Payer Action, March 3, 2009
    http://www.singlepayeraction.org/2009/03/03/hello-world/

  12. Hello there! This article couldn’t be written much better!
    Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He continually kept preaching about this. I most certainly
    will forward this post to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a great read.
    I appreciate you for sharing!

  13. Simon Byrd says:

    And during those 60 days, the Dems had Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson barely on board. There were only three times Dems+Inds actually used 60 votes on a party line: to overcome cloture and pass the ACA on Dec 23 and 24th, 2009.

  14. Caryl Kirk says:

    When my husband and I have political discussions he tends to pull this out when sighting the republicans constant stonewalling of all attempts at bipartisan legislation. Thank you for giving me some facts to back up an argument I could never make.

  15. RobertC says:

    Wow, nice try but your facts are not accurate. Senate rule XXII requires three-fifths of the Senators duly sworn and chosen (normally 60 when there 100 Senators duly sworn and chosen but when the count is 99 Senators the 3/5 number drops to 59)

    By your argument when only 99 and then 98 Senators were duly sworn and chosen the three-fifths required to create a filibuster proof majority then becomes 59.

    From January – July 7, 2009 Minnesota only had one Senator seated leaving the county at 59-40 in favor of Democrats – a three-fifths majority.

    From July 7, 2009 until Scott Brown was sworn in there was still a three-fifths majority to override any Republican filibuster.

    I am also unclear what “damage” Republicans created in six years. They never had a filibuster proof majority. Therefore, any “damage” was bi-partisan.

  16. Anton says:

    It still is a super majority, a lot of legislation can be passed in 60 days, look back at the historic 104th Congress, they passed the whole Contact with America in 100 days, 10 bills that changed the country and sparked the second half of 1990’s, Bill Clinton wisely signed all 10 bills into law, Bill Clinton reached across the isle to try and work with Newt Gingrich as R. Reagan did with Tip O’ Neil. This is no excuse, Obama had no leadership qualities, he trusted Pelosi and Reid, Obama and the democrats blew it. They had a chance to really change things and they blew it. They had a real opportunity in those 60 days, they could have passed or repealed any legislation they wanted without any GOP opposition. 60 days is a long time if you have you chit together, if I remember correctly the House voted in their vacation right away, it would have worked out perfectly. the democrats controlled all 3 Houses and could have done more, that “only 60 days” is no excuse, then you do all you can in those 60 days. Diane Fienstein did not introduce any assault weapon legislation. It was such bad leadership and a do nothing Senate that Obama and the democrats went from total and complete control to losing both Houses back to the Republicans in only six short years and believe me, that is bad. Bush set the bar low, Obama managed to crawl under that bar,

  17. elfish says:

    The facts don’t support your contention.

    1. Your facts are all wrong about the Contract with America. The Republicans said they’d pass it 100 day but they didn’t. It took much longer to pass than 100 days and not all the provisions actually passed.

    For example, “The Fiscal Responsibility Act,” which was part of the Contract, was originally brought up for a vote in January of 1995, when it was rejected. It wasn’t passed until April of 1996 and even then, it was modified and had to be combined with another bill (S.4) to pass. In other words, it took more than 450 days to pass.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contract_with_America#The_Fiscal_Responsibility_Act

    Likewise, the “Personal Responsibility Act” passed the house in March of 1995, but didn’t pass the Senate until September of 1995. That’s 150 days. Even then, it was vetoed by Clinton. Only in 1996 did a substantially changed version pass and get signed into law.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_Responsibility_and_Work_Opportunity_Act

    Another part of the act, HR 450 never passed the Senate.

    Other bills in the Contract with American were substantially modified by the Democrats before they could pass the congress.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contract_with_America

    2. It is not how many days you have a super majority; it is how many contiguous days you have a super majority. A bill can be blocked anywhere along the path to passages. In order to pass legislation using a super majority, the super majority must last long enough to make it through committees, over come all procedural issues and deal with filibusters.

    The longest sequence of super majority was 45 days. Forty five days is less than half the 100 days you were talking about. Those forty five days came in the fall, right in the middle of budget process when there isn’t time introduce new legislation.

    3. When Obama came into office, the Republicans swore they wouldn’t let any of his legislation pass. They swore they’d filibuster every piece of legislation that Obama brought forward. That means that Obama’s legislation faced enormous obstacles that no president ever faced before. Newt Gingrich was willing to work on legislation the both he and Clinton agreed upon. The Republicans said the were unwilling to work with Obama, even on legislation they agreed upon. That’s because they were determined to make him a one-term president by depriving him of any legislative accomplishment.

    http://crooksandliars.com/jon-perr/republicans-unprecedented-obstructionism-by-numbers
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/17/us/politics/17mcconnell.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
    http://www.politico.com/story/2014/05/republicans-legislation-obama-dccc-event-106481

    4. As a result, the Republicans required that every bill, even uncontroversial bills, would be filibustered and would require a super majority to pass. Obama was filibustered twice as much as any other president that came before. The Republicans didn’t do that with Clinton.

    Kennedy/Johnson = 2.6
    Nixon/Ford = 14.6
    Carter = 13.2
    Reagan = 25.6
    Bush = 23.0
    Clinton = 35.2
    Bush = 37.1
    Obama = = 68.8

    5. Bottom line: The Republican talking point that my post was responding to was that “the Democrats had two years of super majority to pass anything they wanted.” Sixty days is no where near two years, and 45 days is even less. And, as I’ve proved, 100 days is not enough to pass legislation, no matter how determined you are or how cooperative the opposition is.

  18. elfish says:

    Your math is defective. Three-fifths of 99 is not 59. It is 59.4. There is no provision in the constitution for rounding down. The rule says:

    “..by a three/fifths affirmative vote of the Senators duly chosen and sworn..”

    That means that it must be 3/5. Fifty nine would only be 2.97 / 5ths.

    http://politics.stackexchange.com/questions/1986/how-many-votes-is-a-senate-supermajority-when-there-are-vacancies

    This is affirmed by the CBO:

    “Thus, if there is no more than one vacancy, 60 Senators must vote to invoke cloture.”

    In other words, if there is one vacancy, you still need 60 votes to over come a filibuster.

    Page: 12
    https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL30360.pdf

    The same language appears over and over again in Senate documents;

    Page 128:
    https://books.google.com/books?id=LbtebozRW_sC&printsec=frontcover

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