Kessler's 'Four Pinocchios' Evaluation of Obama's '500 Filibusters' Howler Really Rebukes the Press

On Friday, Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post (HT Hot Air) gave "Four Pinocchios" (i.e., a "Whopper") to a statement President Barack Obama made about Senate Republicans' filibuster track record on Wednesday in a speech at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dinner in Los Angeles.

In the process, Kessler essentially delivered a rebuke to reporters who cover Obama. Every one of them should have recognized that his DCCC claim that "since 2007, they (Republicans) have filibustered about 500 pieces of legislation that would help the middle class" is false. For it to be true, GOP senators would have had to average 68 filibusters per year only of middle-class relevant bills for the past 7-1/3 years. With the Senate being in session an average of just under 112 days per year during the time involved, that' an impossible frequency of more than one every other day. Excerpts from Kessler's critique follow the jump (links are in original; bolds are mine):


Four Pinocchios for Obama’s claim that Republicans have ‘filibustered about 500 pieces of legislation’

GlennKesslerWaPoWide

... Regular readers knows that The Fact Checker has objected to the way that Senate Democrats tally these figures, but the president’s claim makes little sense no matter how you do the numbers.

The Facts

First, some definitions: A filibuster generally refers to extended debate that delays a vote on a pending matter, while cloture is a device to end debate. Filibusters are used by opponents of a nominee or legislation, while cloture is filed by supporters.

Since 2007, there have been 527 cloture motions that have been filed, according to Senate statistics. This is apparently where Obama got his figure. But this tells only part of the story, as many of those cloture motions were simply dropped, never actually voted on, or “vitiated” in the senatorial nomenclature.

I'm going to pause right there, because even before getting into the technicalities of filibuster counting, it should be obvious to anyone covering the White House that there would have been far more than 28 cloture motions since 2007 (bringing the total below 500), and even far more than 78 (bringing it below 450, eliminating a credible presenter's ability to round up to 500), relating to issues other than "help(ing) the middle class."

Yet the journalists covering Obama either chose to ignore Obama's ridiculous claim, or are too math-challenged to detect its obvious falsehood.

In fact, as Kessler notes, most cloture motions have nothing to do with "legislation" at all, let alone what such legislation might address:

Obama is assuming every cloture motion can be counted as a filibuster. Political scientist Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution, in 2002 co-wrote a paper that concluded there was 94 percent correlation between cloture motions and documented filibusters between 1917 and 1996. But the Congressional Research Service, using newer data, warned in a 2013 report that “it would be erroneous, however, to treat this table as a list of filibusters on nominations.”

Indeed, when you go through the numbers, there have just been 133 successful filibusters — meaning a final vote could not take place — since 2007.

But, even if you accept the way Senate Democrats like to frame the issue, the president is still wrong. He referred to “legislation” — and most of these cloture motions concerned judicial and executive branch nominations. In the 113th Congress, for instance, 83 of the 136 cloture motions so far have concerned nominations, not legislation.

... Even then, while Obama referred to “500 pieces of legislation,” the same bill can be subject to as many as three cloture motions, further inflating the numbers. For instance, there may be cloture to get on the bill, cloture on the substitute bill (if lawmakers are simply using an unrelated bill as a vehicle for passage), and cloture on the underlying bill. All of these votes might take place on the same day, but it creates the illusion of the same bill being “filibustered” three times. It certainly does not mean there were three pieces of legislation. So far in the 113th Congress, 36 pieces of legislation were subject to a cloture motion — and 12 were actually filibustered. That’s a far cry from the 136 that Obama is counting in order to tally up 500.

Obama’s count also includes at least a half-dozen instances when Republicans were blocked by Democrats through use of the filibuster.

... The White House declined to provide an on-the-record response.

The Pinocchio Test

On just about every level, this claim is ridiculous.

Obama's remarks are right there on the White House web site for reporters who were present but were so enthralled by Dear Leader's speechifying that they failed to take notes or turn on their recorders.

A review of the possibly relevant articles returned in a search of the Associated Press's national site on "Obama Los Angeles" (not in quotes; AP coverage of Obama's West Coast trip is here and here) surfaced no evidence that anyone at the Associated Press reported Obama's false statement. A search at the New York Times on the same string indicates that no one at the Old Gray Lady noticed Obama's self-evident howler.

Mike Allen, Politico's Chief White House correspondent and a journalist for over a quarter-century, noted Obama's 500-filibuster remark in his Thursday morning Politico Playbook, with no recognition that the remark was a crock — something he surely had to know. Or is it really possible that a 28-year journalist with what appears to be at least a decade on the White House beat who "is considered by many to be one of the most powerful and influential journalists in Washington" is really that dense? Or, even worse, as the Washington Post's Erik Wemple alleged in November, are Allen and his bosses at Politico, who pointedly refused to speak with Wemple, too interested in giving favorable coverage to advertisers to do real reporting any more?

Under a Republican or conservative president, establishment press reporters parse every word of every speech or remark in search of a rhetorical "fact check" opening (to be clear, this is usually appropriate, but in administrations the press doesn't like, it has often become obsessive to the point of childishness and also frequently misleading). Under Obama, they snooze — or, if they recognize a fib they don't want to relay to the news-consuming public, they pretend to.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.