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Definition of Cloture: An Agreement to Limit Debate NOT to Begin Debating

Posted by Guest Contributor Will Johnston from Mind Muse

UPDATE: Looks like I was wrong on this one. While cloture is a motion to end debate, on Saturday the Senate invoked cloture on the motion to proceed to the bill, not on the bill itself, making the statement that the senate agreed to begin debating the bill a true one. I should have looked more closely!

Time for a quick civics lesson! Countless news agencies are misreporting that yesterday’s Senate vote on the health care bill is a vote to begin debating the bill.

From the Washington Post:

After days of indecision, the last two Democratic holdouts — Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) — joined their caucus in supporting a motion to begin debate.

From the New York Times:

The Senate voted on Saturday to begin full debate on major health care legislation

From CNN:

the Senate voted to move ahead with a floor debate

These are just a few examples, but you can find countless others on Google News.

The problem?

They’re all wrong. The Senate voted to invoke cloture, a motion to limit debate on a bill or other matter (i.e. nomination) pending before the Senate.

In olden days, you couldn’t actually ever stop debate on a bill if any Senator wanted to keep talking about it. As you can imagine, this meant that if a couple of Senators were really opposed to something, they could just take turns talking about it until the rest of the Senators caved and moved on to the other things they needed to vote on. In an effort to help move things along, the Senate changed its rules so that if two-thirds of the Senators wanted to end debate, they could do so by invoking cloture. Yes, it sounds a lot like closure, and the two words have very similar meanings. They’re about bringing something to an end.

The bar for invoking cloture was still so high that it was nearly impossible to do. Getting two-thirds of the Senate to agree on everything is like getting two three-year-olds to eat all of their vegetables. In fact, cloture was only invoked five times during the next 46 years. Consequently, the Senate changed its rules to require only three-fifths of the Senators to vote for a cloture motion in order for it to pass.

I hope this little history and civics lesson has helped you understand what the Senate voted on last night. The fact is that the news agencies weren’t reporting what really happened. Cloture takes a bit more to explain well than can be put in a news article about another topic, so they took a shortcut. The party in control of Congress (currently the Democratic Party) sets the agenda and can debate whatever they want. They didn’t have to win a Senate vote to debate health care reform, they had to win a Senate vote to put an end to debating health care reform so they can actually vote on passing the bill.

How do I know so much about cloture? Well, I used to work for a Senator, so I learned a lot about what it was and how it worked. I didn’t really know the history part, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, and Wikipedia pointed me to two articles on the Senate website that give the history of cloture.

Cloture Rule~March 8, 1917
Filibusters and Cloture in the Senate

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