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Fact-checking Barack Obama on the Senate filibuster
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• Senators representing between 29% and 39% of the U.S. population would be sufficient to maintain a filibuster in the Senate, and thus, in a sense, control what can be passed in the chamber.
• However, taking into account the strong partisan leanings in most states, a bloc of states with a combined population that small wouldn’t be able to secure a 51-seat majority in the Senate.
During an interview with New York Times opinion writer Ezra Klein, former President Barack Obama took aim at the filibuster — the Senate procedural tool that allows a minority of 41 senators to block action on a bill — on the grounds that it’s undemocratic.
"The filibuster, if it does not get reformed, still means that maybe 30% of the population potentially controls the majority of Senate seats," Obama told Klein. "And so if you say that 30% of the country is irreconcilably wrong, then it’s going to be hard to govern."
It wasn’t the first time that Obama has criticized the filibuster since leaving office. At the eulogy for John Lewis, the civil rights activist and congressman from Georgia who died in 2020, Obama called the filibuster a "Jim Crow relic."
In the transcript of the interview with Klein, this passage about the filibuster included a link to a Washington Post analysis of the differences between population and representation in the Senate. However, the Post article doesn’t precisely support what Obama said.
We reached out to Obama’s post-presidential press office but did not hear back. Instead, we crunched the numbers from the 2020 Census and concluded that Obama’s overall point had merit but that he misstated the details.
In particular, Obama said that states with a small percentage of the population could control "the majority of Senate seats." Given today’s partisan tendencies in each state, controlling an actual majority of seats would not be feasible for that small a percentage. However, a small percentage of the population could control enough seats to successfully wield the filibuster, which effectively gives them control over whether a majority can pass legislation.
The Constitution gives each state two senators, regardless of population, so Wyoming and Vermont have the same representation in the chamber as California and Texas, which have more than 30 times as many people.
The Post article cited in the transcript was headlined, "By 2040, two-thirds of Americans will be represented by 30% of the Senate." That’s 20 years in the future, but the article goes on to note that even today, the largest 15 states have 66% of the nation’s population, but just 30 seats in the Senate.
While the article’s conclusion is generally consistent with Obama’s point, it doesn’t have anything to do with the filibuster or the 60-vote threshold to end one. Rather, the article looked at representation throughout the entire chamber.
More importantly, the headline finding from the article is purely numerical, and ignores which party currently holds the smallest states’ Senate seats. In reality, those 35 smaller states have selected a mix of Republican and Democratic senators, so these states would not be likely to form a unified coalition.
But there are ways to look at the question of whether senators from a bloc of smaller states could effectively use the filibuster to steer the Senate for one party. One way is to ask: What is the smallest share of the U.S. population whose senators could block legislation by mounting a successful filibuster, once you factor in the prevailing party affiliation?
For this analysis, we used the current partisan breakdown of the Senate. The results could change if seats flip in the next election, or if partisan trends in some states evolve.
We looked at the smallest 21 states that currently have two senators from the same party — 21 because that’s the minimum number of states that would allow one party to prevail in a filibuster, and the same party because in the six states with mixed delegations, the senators’ votes would likely cancel each other out. (We counted the Senate’s two independent members, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as Democrats, since they caucus with the Democrats.)
The 21 smallest states that have two Republican senators account for 29% of the U.S. population. So, by themselves, these states could muster 42 votes to sustain a filibuster, thereby overruling the 71% of the population represented by the other 58 senators.
The 21 smallest states with two Democratic senators account for 39% of the U.S. population, meaning that Democrats from these states could mount a filibuster that thwarts senators representing the remaining 61% of the population.
So Obama’s remark is a reasonable assessment of how much muscle a fraction of states can flex in order to block legislation in the Senate.
But Obama’s claim that "30% of the population potentially controls the majority of Senate seats" overreaches. In the Senate’s current makeup, 29% to 39% of the population could control 42 seats — but not a majority of seats in the 100-seat chamber.
In reality, neither party today can muster an actual majority, 51 seats, using just states that have unified partisan control of their Senate delegation.
Adding Texas and California to the previous tally, the 22 states that currently have two Republican senators represent 38% of the population, and the 22 states with two Democratic senators represent 51% of the population. (The other six states have mixed representation.)
These groupings of states produce only 44 seats for either party — not a majority.
In the big picture, however, Obama has a legitimate point, said Josh Ryan, a Utah State University political scientist and specialist in Congress.
"Essentially a very small population of the country gets to veto legislation preferred by a large majority," Ryan said. "They don't get to control the Senate, but they get to control what passes the Senate."
Obama said, "The filibuster, if it does not get reformed, still means that maybe 30% of the population potentially controls the majority of Senate seats."
In the Senate’s current makeup, senators representing 29% to 39% of the U.S. population would be sufficient to mount a filibuster and block a vote on legislation, in a sense controlling what can be passed in the chamber.
However, an alliance of states with a combined population that small couldn’t secure a majority of seats in the chamber, unless you ignore today’s strong partisan leanings in most states.
We rate the statement Half True.
New York Times, "Obama Explains How American Went from 'Yes We Can' to 'MAGA,'" June 1, 2021
Washington Post, "By 2040, two-thirds of Americans will be represented by 30 percent of the Senate," Nov. 28, 2017
U.S. Census Bureau, "2020 Census Apportionment Results," April 26, 2021
Email interview with Josh Ryan, Utah State University political scientist, June 1, 2021
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