Poll Shows Few Americans Understand Senate Filibuster Rules

And less than one third know that no GOP senators supported health reform.


By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I've argued here before that while the filibuster is today used in a radically different way than it was traditionally--far more legislation is subjected to these delaying tactics than used to be the case--part of the problem stems from public ignorance of how it works. I got some measure of confirmation from a recent Pew poll which showed that all of 26 percent of Americans know that 60 votes are required to break a Senate filibuster. Almost the same number (25 percent) think that a simple majority (51 votes, for those of you scoring at home) can break a filibuster. Seven percent of Americans think the number is 67 votes and five percent think it's 75 votes. And 37 percent had the good sense to throw up their hands and admit ignorance.

Figures like that make me glad that President Obama made a point in his State of the Union address of admonishing the GOP that if they "insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. " I might have liked him to spell things out a bit more explicitly, pointing out that such a blanket insistence on a supermajority is a recent development, and not in keeping with how the filibuster has been traditionally used. But I'll take it.

This isn't a partisan thing. The rise of filibuster has come at a time when control of the Senate has switched back and forth several times, so it's not the fault of one party or the other. But we've reached a point where the majority party has accountability without power, as underscored by the one in four Americans who think that 51 votes can move something through the Senate and 37 percent who just have no idea.

The same poll shows that only 32 percent of Americans realized that the health bill had passed the Senate without any Republican support. Almost as many Americans (29 percent) think that some number of GOPers voted for it (that breaks out to 13 percent who think that 5 Republicans voted for it, and 8 percent each who put the number at 10 or 20). Given the low polling numbers for both the health reform plan and the Republican Party, I'm not sure what to make of this stat, but it's interesting.

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