James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • How America Can Rise Again
    Seamus Murphy

    How America Can Rise Again

    Is America going to hell? After a year of economic calamity that many fear has sent us into irreversible decline, the author finds reassurance in the peculiarly American cycle of crisis and renewal, and in the continuing strength of the forces that have made the country great: our university system, our receptiveness to immigration, our culture of innovation. In most significant ways, the U.S. remains the envy of the world. But here’s the alarming problem: our governing system is old and broken and dysfunctional. Fixing it—without resorting to a constitutional convention or a coup—is the key to securing the nation’s future.

  • Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year 2010

    There are many items in the queue, but I've just turned in an article, have Christmas Eve duties, and am then leaving town. I am grateful to all for attention and suggestions through the year; apologies for moments of choler or many things left undone. I send good wishes of the season to readers from whatever country or background. And I will be away from this space until the first few days of next year. 

  • Another moment to note, for Liu Xiaobo (updated)

    The trial and impending sentencing of Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), in China, is a dark moment for him, for his country, and for the prospects of expanding liberties for ordinary Chinese people.

    I have no information to add to the extensive Western news coverage of his case, just a voice of support. In brief, Liu is a prominent long-time advocate for the expansion of civil society, rule of law, and individual liberties in China. He was jailed twenty years ago, after Tiananmen Square, and is now being tried for "incitement to subvert state power." By all reports, he will be sentenced tomorrow, while much of the Western world's attention is distracted on Christmas Day. The charges apparently arise mainly from his role last year in promoting "Charter 08," a manifesto for civil society in China. There is nothing about his life, work, or efforts that a truly confident government should fear. That the Chinese government cannot tolerate his views speaks volumes.

    There is much to admire in modern China, and even more to sympathize with in the aspirations and efforts of its people. But this is a reminder of what is wrong with the way it is run, and is a moment that friends of China and of Chinese people should note, regret, and deplore.

    Resources: from New York Times; Washington Post; Human Rights in China; English text of Charter 08; Chinese text of Charter 08. 

    UPDATE: Just now -- Christmas Eve in the US, Friday morning in Beijing --  Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "subversion," the harshest such sentence in a very long time. This is a very sobering moment.

  • A moment to note

    I was in high school in California when Congress wrestled with the Medicare bill in the 1960s. The temper of our town was extremely conservative, and I remember then the same combination of heartfelt, and eventually panicked and despairing, warnings by opponents of the bill that I have heard from opponents of the current health-care plan these past few months. Big spending, big deficits, big government, end of choice, destruction of the doctor-patient relationship, intrusion of the bureaucrat, erosion of the American way. The mood was just as committed, angry, impassioned, and beyond the reach of mere "let's talk about the facts" discussion as it is now. That background doesn't prove that fears about the current bill are ill-founded. But it needs to be remembered.

    At the time I didn't register the significance of Medicare's passage -- something now so engrained as part of the American Way that today's Republicans have positioned themselves as its protectors (against the alleged ravages of the Obama plan). I think that these two quick-reaction TNR articles -- by Jonathan Chait, here, and Jonathan Cohn, here -- do a wonderful job of registering the significance of the Senate's 60-39 vote today in favor of the bill. Chait's is particularly thorough in parsing and addressing the main objections to the bill. These two writers, plus Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, have through the long course of this debate provided a clinic in how to explain the policies and the politics of a very important, very controversial, and very very verrrrrryy complicated public decision.

    The Republican opponents of Medicare in my youth at least had something they were for. They had Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative; they had Ronald Reagan with his recorded addresses on how socialized medicine was the route toward socialism of all sorts. Even though in practice Reagan's pitch boiled down to flat-out opposition to Medicare, the idea-content of his opposition now seems about 100 times greater than what we've become accustomed to hearing from Fox News or at tea-party rallies.

    The Republican coalition of that time had its "reactionary" elements, notably those white Southerners who were being peeled from the traditional Democratic coalition by their reaction to the civil rights era. The John Birch Society was of course already part of the team. But the conservatism of Goldwater and Reagan didn't seem to be the pure reaction, pure oppositionism, pure emotional outrage that to me comes through many anti-Obama speeches. Newt Gingrich was not Ronald Reagan's equivalent as a political leader nor Goldwater's as progenitor of a movement. But when he led the GOP's efforts to stop Clinton's health care plan and its subsequent takeover of the House in 1994, he very prominently offered "ideas" and a "plan." (Viz, 'Contract with America.')

    When the most visible faces and most prominent voices of Republican sentiment are Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, McConnell, and Boehner, aggrieved oppositionism is possible, but a Reagan- or even Gingrich-scale movement is hard. They await their leader. In the meantime, it is a moment to note.

  • A musical Christmas treat

    Perhaps because our extended family includes a branch in Rome, I can't get enough of the wonderful, antique, nonsense-English "rap" video posted on the Daily Dish a few days ago:

    And certainly because our extended family includes some actual Romans, I now know much more about this than I ever thought I would! For one, the clip is more than 35 years old, and features a very-famous-in-Italy singer, Adriano Celentano, who is now in his 70s. The starring blond disco-dancer is the also-well-known Raffaella Carrà. (The black-and-white parts are from the original early 1970s video; the color part is from a later remix.) Also: although one of Celentano's idols is Elvis Presley and he sounds completely American with an Elvis-like diction, he does not speak English himself (or so he says, in Italian, in an article yesterday in la Repubblica.)* His purpose in doing the song was to promote the idea of "universal communication." And: he's apparently enjoying a boomlet of fame, thanks to this video that was initially boosted by Cory Doctorow.

    Even better: after the jump, a transcription of the lyrics to the song, which begins:

    in de col men seivuan
    prisencolinensinainciusol ol rait

    And best of all, a video with "subtitles" based on the English it sounds like he is saying. For instance, in this one the title of the song becomes "Freezing cold and excellent choose hole."

    Thanks to sister-in-law SZG in Roma. Buon Natale!
    Also, background last year from the New Yorker's site, here.

    *From la Repubblica: Ci dica la verità: ha mai imparato l' inglese? «Sono anni che cerco di impararlo, ma ho sempre rimandato a causa di impegni, e il fatto di non parlare inglese è per me una vera spina.

    Q: The truth, now: you've never learned English? A: For years I wanted to learn, but I always put it off, and the fact of not speaking English is a real pain.

    in de col men seivuan
    prisencolinensinainciusol ol rait
    uis de seim cius men
    op de seim ol uat men
    in de colobos dai
    ciak is e maind beghin de col
    bebi stei ye push yo oh
    uis de seim cius men
    in de colobos dai
    not is de seim laikiu
    de promisdin iu nau
    in trabol lovgiai ciu gen
    in do camo not cius no bai
    for lov so op op giast
    cam lau ue cam lov ai
    oping tu stei laik cius
    go mo men
    iu bicos tue men cold
    dobrei gorls
    oh sandei...

    ai ai smai sesler
    eni els so co uil piso ai
    in de col men seivuan

    prisencolinensinainciusol ol rait
    uei ai sint no ai
    giv de sint laik de cius
    nobodi oh gud taim lev feis go
    uis de seim et seim cius
    go no ben let de cius
    end kai for not de gai giast stei
    ai ai smai senflecs
    eni go for doing peso ai
    in de col mein seivuan
    prisencolinensinainciusol ol rait
    lu nei si not sicidor
    ah es la bebi la dai big iour

    ai ai smai senflecs
    eni go for doin peso ai
    in de col mein saivuan
    prisencolinensinainciusol ol rait
    lu nei si not sicodor
    ah es la bebi la dai big iour

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  • "Significant if true" follow up (China in Copenhagen)

    Reaction to the Guardian story yesterday, alleging that Chinese negotiators "intentionally" embarrassed Barack Obama and sabotaged the Copenhagen talks, turns out to be a Rorschach test for views on a variety of issues. Views of China (inherently untrustworthy); views of the US and the West (inherently biased against rising China); views of Obama (ludicrously out of his depth in dealing with the Chinese); views of man-made climate change and big international conclaves like this (big frauds in both cases).

    Herewith two representative responses. First, from a reader with a Chinese name asking "understanding and patience" for China. Then, someone with a realpolitik argument about Chinese negotiating interests. The Chinese reader says:

    "The points Mark [Lynas, on the Guardian's site] made in the article is too judgmental and biased. Actually Premier Wen attended two meetings with President Obama. Another fact he fails to mention is that CO2 emission per person in China is only 1/4 that of US, 1/2 of Europe. Great Britain is a service-based economy and no longer a World Factory even a century ago, but someone has to produce clothes, cars, and toys. right? Yes, They are made in China (also for Chinese) now with coal-based industry. So what? Put a tariff on these products ,move back manufacturing, put a halt to China's heavy industries? No offense, but China is really still a very young man towards modernization and may never enjoyed a lifestyle many of us envied so much. Is it fair to accuse a young man to stop growing up as an adult? [JF note: This is a familiar image in Chinese discussions.]
     "Of course China's economy needs restructuring, and this will surely proves very hard. From a high-carbon economy to low-carbon economy, the transition nowadays seems more like a international politics issue than an internal economic issue. On the way to a greener economy, Mark really should make less accusations with more understanding and patience."

    Now, from a non-Chinese reader:

    "It is with a sort of sad bemusement that I read the Guardian account of the Chinese action at Copenhagen. There are a couple things which indicate that the writer might be somewhat insufficiently well-informed, not the least of them the assumption, prior to being wrecked at the conference, that China somehow would like to do things within nearly 200-member multilateral regimes, when in fact the very philosophy of the larger Chinese diplomacy, for the past century, has been dead-set against using such a regime in a positive, rather than negating, manner. I am not sure what exactly possessed Mr Lynas, the writer, to assume thus, but it is certainly not familiarity with Chinese methods.
    "I think what China is really wrecking, if this account is true, is the unwieldy system where all 192 members of the United Nations are involved in cutting what are essentially big-power deals; too many cooks in the kitchen and all that. I don't think China is that resentful of cutting compromises with the West (it has done so pretty competently since probably the 1860's, despite the anti-colonial resentment being instilled in Chinese schoolchildren), as much as having to involve every single developing and Third World country in such compromises as well, making the deals that much crummier for both China and the West. To cut a climate deal, you only really need the following: the United States, China, India, Europe, Australia-Canada, and Japan. South Korea usually follows (by necessity) what China-Japan does, and South Africa and Brazil, being on the receiving end, usually can be brought in at the later part of the process. If you think the West is tired of negotiating with the melodrama of some Third World leaders, it's useful to keep in mind that the Chinese shares none of the West's colonial guilt and would absolutely not stand for people like Chavez taking over the floor on something they actually want to do, as opposed to something they want to prevent (in this case they sought to prevent a climate deal through the Copenhagen process).

    "For about the last half-century, China has found the kabuki theatre of things like the G77 pretty useful sort of as a bludgeon against the West. It still is, as shown at Copenhagen. But it would serve us well to understand that China doesn't actually seek to accomplish anything positive through such a system, much less be a part of it. When and if China seeks to accomplish a positive result, it will be through Congress of Berlin-style great power negotiations. Of course, given that Western diplomats still retain the uninformed habit of agglomerating China with other developing countries, China will keep acting that way (it is noticeable how the politicians have responded to the reality of China much more deftly than the diplomats, who, after all, quite foolishly still convene such doomed-to-fail monstrosities as the Copenhagen conference, and mouth tiredly about multilateralism)."

      As always, we report, you decide.

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  • If I were Sen. Bill Nelson ... (updated x2)

    ... I wonder how I would feel about the home page of the WaPo's opinion section just now.


    Sen. Ben Nelson is probably not crazy about the op-ed itself, but that's in the normal sphere of political disagreement. Wonder how long it will stay this way on the site, having been up there overnight.

    (To spell it out: the very negative-toned headline refers to the wrong guy. Second paragraph of the article: "Such was the case in the final hours of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's successful attempt to get cloture on health-care reform. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the last Democratic holdout,..." Thanks to reader EG.)

    Update:   Checking back a few hours later (11:20am), the mistake is still there on the WaPo's home "Opinion" page. I don't mean to go crazy on the "are there no copy editors?" theme, but again this genuinely surprises me: That the nation's leading newspaper of politics, in the top-most item on its main opinion page, would make a highly embarrassing error in a highly insulting headline about the major political news of the moment - and no one would fix it. We all make errors; I have put up more embarrassing typo-marred items than I would like. But how many people at the Post have to have seen the site by this point (including the author of the piece) - without any of them saying, Ooops?? I can't imagine that if the main page of the sports site said in its lead headline that "George Allen" was going to be the new general manager of the Redskins, rather than his son Bruce Allen, the error would stay up there for hours. (Or more plausibly George Allen Jr, rather than his brother Bruce.) But then, I couldn't imagine that the "Bill Nelson" item would stay up uncorrected either.

    Oh well. Back to work, and Merry Christmas!

    Update #2: Just now, 11:35 or so, I see that it is fixed. Never mind!

  • A story that, if true, is important

    This account, on the Guardian's site this afternoon, from a writer who says he was a first-hand witness when Chinese representatives "intentionally" torpedoed Barack Obama's proposals and wrecked the Copenhagen deal. The headline tells the story:

    How do I know China wrecked the


    Copenhagen deal? I was in the room

    As the author, Mark Lynas, notes at the end of the story, the Chinese government and Chinese businesses are indeed sponsoring very ambitious clean-tech and clean-up programs across the country. But he argues that the Chinese representatives saw it as strategically in China's interest to thwart any specific or enforceable deal, and to position the West, and in particular the U.S., as the culprits for the failure. Lynas is identified in the article only as a "freelance writer working full-time on climate change." But in another Guardian article he is identified as being an adviser to the Maldives, one of the island nations most threatened by rising sea levels, which could explain why he was "in the room" during the negotiations. I'm sorry he wasn't clearer in the article itself about how he knows what he says he saw.

    Obviously I can't tell independently whether this account is true, or fair, and it certainly differs in tone from much of the other coverage and analysis out of Copenhagen. (Difference #1 from most U.S. coverage: declaration of abject failure. Difference #2: flat-out blame on China as the obstacle, rather than problems-all-around. Of course some other U.K. coverage and commentary has struck a similar note. Nuance #3 that rings strange to American ears: the idea that Obama showed up in Copenhagen with anything like a "strong mandate" from the U.S. for a substantial climate offer.)  But even in a provisional sense, this seems worth noting as one strand in the emerging interpretation of China's new role in international affairs, and the prospects for the much-bruited China-U.S. cooperation on climate issues.

    I could write in my sleep the response that will come from Chinese officials and from Chinese netizens about the unfairness of this view and the possibility that it will "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people." I pass it along as worth notice to those interested in the next stage of China's international interactions -- and those interested in the environment too.

  • Bing-vs-Google experiment report (updated)

    I mentioned a week ago that, in the name of science, I would rely strictly on Bing while reporting an article I'm writing now. (Note to my editors: almost done, really! No, I'm serious this time!) I have a precis of the results on a segment of "All Tech Considered" with Michele Norris this evening -- link herewhen it's available -- but here are the significant results:

    1) In a sane world, we'd recognize that all search engines are great.... On most queries, I found via Bing more or less what I would have expected to find on Google. Same for Ask.com. In a way, carping about the differences is like carping about the differences between a Mercedes and a BMW, when ten years ago you were riding an ox.

    2) ... and we'd also recognize that no search engine is perfect. An obvious point, and one I've addressed before (in the NYT, here), but still worth remembering. For reasons I won't go into, I was trying to find a list of all the senators who voted for and against ratifying the Panama Canal Treaty in 1978. So far, no dice -- with Bing, Google, Ask, Yahoo, etc. I have complete faith that ten minutes after I post this, I'll get a note from someone saying, "You idiot, they're right here.." with the relevant link. I'm saying, I played around long enough to think that the list was "not easily findable" via search engines, so for practical purposes it doesn't exist. Though the search turned up some nuggets like this (memo to Jimmy Carter about how to sweet-talk certain senators during phone calls about the treaty), which I found via Ask.com.

    3) Bing has many winsome touches. I don't mean its most heavily promoted feature: its service as a "decision engine" for buying things. I wasn't really shopping this week, so I didn't care. Rather I mean that, for instance, when I was looking for info on the French novel La Disparition, the first hit was the French Wikipedia site for the book. (Though when I run the search again just now, English Wikipedia comes up first. These results are dynamic things.) Its way for presenting image-results is more attractive and convenient than Google's. And... lots of other carefully thought-out touches. As a whole the site looks nice, starting with its splash-screen picture of the day. Today's, below:


    4) And, no doubt there's a big "you like what you're used to" factor at play. If I'd been using Bing for years and had never heard of Google, I might find Google's austere look and style "unusual."

    5) But overall, sigh, Bing seemed to leave too much out. At least too much of what I wanted to find. I mentioned this last summer, when Bing first came out. It still seems to be the case -- for my purposes, in day by day use this week.

    Before giving some illustrations, I need to explain a change in my Experimental Technique. After several days' worth of looking for things only on Bing, I had a nagging feeling that I wasn't getting the whole story. So rather than just give up and go to Google, I turned to the inspired site Bing-vs-Google.com, which gives you side-by-side results for the same search. The illustrations below rely on that comparison:

      - I was looking for Gene Weingarten's incredibly wrenching Washington Post magazine story about infants who died when left in overheated cars. It was the number-one hit when I did a search in Google; it was not on the first page of results with Bing. See the comparison here.

    - I wanted to provide background for Francois Villon's Ballade des dames du temps jadis. The Google results of a search on "Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan" were just what I was looking for; not so with Bing. See here.

    - I wanted to identify the music in a very brief Chrysler Town and Country ad I'd just seen on TV. Google had it, as the #1 hit; on Bing, it was down below a lot of chaff. See here. Something similar when I was looking for the music from a Palm Pixi ad, here.

    - I was looking -- online shopping! -- for a case for my invaluable LiveScribe Pulse magic pen. This is what Bing is supposed to be made for, but the first non-sponsored hit is for a site that looks pretty fishy to me. Its intro says: "We at livescribepen.net gathered a range of stylish high tech pen now a day; here you can search all kinds of livescribe pen. You can use it either your in meeting, school, training and at the office, it's a unique pen that you can count on. If you use the smartpen your life running smooth to write what you heard." That site -- again, #1 for Bing -- seems to be filtered out of the first few pages of Google. See the comparison here.

    Note: if you click on these Bing-vs-Google links, you may see something different from what I'm reporting here, since the site runs real-time searches of ever-changing content. (I've saved some of the screen shots from my searches but am not posting them here.)

    6) Moral of the story? I mentioned earlier that after my experiment in writing an article with voice-recognition software only, I returned happily to the keyboard. I will return happily to Google -- and, no kidding, to Bing-vs-Google.com (or other sites that do the same, like this and this). (UPDATE: and this one, GoogaWho?, which lets you easily compare results from Google, Bing, Ask, Yahoo, InfoSpace, Lycos, AltaVista, and Dogpile.) You never know what you might have missed! There's always more to prowl around for, including that elusive Panama Canal vote.   

    [Routine disclaimer: I have good friends and a variety of connections at both Microsoft and Google.]
  • Filibuster roundup, including a defense of it

    Following this and this:

    -- Useful to have Paul Krugman on the case, today.

    -- A friend who is a lawyer and has worked in politics provides this extra bit of evidence-hidden-in-plain-sight. As we all know, the Constitution allows the Vice President to cast a vote in the Senate in only one circumstance: to break a tie. Or, as Article I, section 3, puts it, "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided." My friend adds:

    "The fact that the founders expected the possibility of "equally divided" votes where the VP would break a tie is another piece of textual evidence for majority rule except where expressly provided elsewhere.  The VP cannot break a tie if the decisive vote is 60."

    -- The dysfunctional and distorting nature of the modern reliance on the filibuster is on top of a different dysfunctional and distorting aspect of the Senate: that the 36+ million people of California, and the 500,000+ people of Wyoming, are each represented by two Senate votes. I go into the combined effect of these factors in my upcoming Atlantic article.

    -- On why the current plague of filibusters makes it hard to govern, a reader makes the apt comparison to California:

    "The same problem exists in California regarding closing the budget deficit, since there is a  supermajority requirement to raise certain taxes.  In general, the Democrats would raise taxes and the Republicans would cut services. 

    "Given the Democrats' modest majority and the votes required to pass tax legislation, the legislature is at an impasse. More important, there is no one for the voters to blame.  Since no party can implement its program, no individual or party is responsible for the result.  My conclusion -- supermajority rules are inconsistent with a functional democracy."

    -- Charles Stevenson, a veteran of the Senate staff, gives a (measured) defense of the arrangement, and specific suggestions for repair:

    "As a longtime Senate observer and a staffer for 22 years, I am less troubled than you about the filibuster. I've seen it used by supporters and opponents of measures I felt strongly about, so it's an important part of the legislative toolkit. I do agree that the tactic has been overly used in recent years and would like to see some restraint. Drawing on your suggestion that David Axelrod [and others] read some history, here are some historical points.

    "1. What forced the adoption of the first rule to cut off debate was press, public, and even Senatorial outrage at the filibuster used in February-March 1917 to block passage of the bill to arm U.S. merchant ships just after Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare against even then-neutral U.S. ships.

    "2. What allowed adoption of the 60-vote rule to replace the 2/3 vote requirement was the post-Watergate increase in the number of Senate liberals and diminished intensity among southerners since civil rights legislation was largely on the statute books.

    "3. What has led to increased use of the filibuster in recent years, I believe, is the "demonstration effect" that follows successful use of a tactic which hadn't been much used before. For example, no one had tried to amend the actual text of treaties between the Versailles pact ending World War I and the 1977 Panama Canal treaties. But once Senator Jesse Helms [R-NC] took advantage of the rules permitting such amendments, and nearly won, the device became common practice.

    "4. The only way to force restraint now, I believe,is a combination of public outrage and some baby step changes in rules and precedents. I don't foresee -- or favor -- wholesale repeal of rule XXII, and I think the "nuclear option" of a Vice Presidential ruling that the filibuster is somehow unconstitutional would be a dangerous abuse of power. But I think that determined legislative craftsmen could devise some situations where rulings could be made to make it harder to use the filibuster so much and so easily. What I'm calling for is an effort to reverse engineer the rulings allowing for post-cloture filibusters and other delay tactics used by conservative Senators after the 1975 rules change.  I've been away from the Senate precedents too long to be more specific, but I have faith in the skill of parliamentarians to craft solutions."

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  • Maybe it was only 16" of snow at National Airport

    But in NW DC we see at least 20" on top of, say, this table on the porch:


    My Minnesota-reared wife, aka Nanook, went out and measured 20"+ in areas that had settled a little bit overnight.


    Another illustration of brave citizen voices correcting the Mainstream Media!

  • David Axelrod: Go read your history!

    Good for David Gregory. Just now, on Meet the Press, he asked David Axelrod whether the Senate's " 'majority' equals 60 votes" current operating rules made sense.

    Not so good for David Axelrod. He immediately says, "These are time-honored rules."

    Unt-uh. They are "time-honored" only in the sense of having been adopted awaaaaayyy-back at the dawn of time in 1975; and they have been of practical importance only really since the time of Bill Clinton -- and with a sharp increase in the last three or four years.

    Can the chief political advisor at the White House really not know this about the filibuster? And if he knows the real story, why would he stick with this "time-honored" line? Either explanation is unsettling.

    To round out your morning anti-filibuster ruling, below and after the jump a note from a reader in Maine:

    "Right now, feels like we're all sitting at the racetrack, handicapping horses instead of governing our country. (Note disclaimer below.)We're treating the management of our national household like a sporting event. And I think the filibuster is at least partly to blame.

    "Consider that 50% point -- the tipping point -- of making public policy in our democracy. It's shifted from the Senate to publicopinion polling. Look at how often the country sits there; evenly divided on the edge, in most recent elections and on many issues; how often we poll nearly 50/50 policy issues. It seems that the need for a supermajority in the Senate continually pulls the public to the tipping point.
    "But it's a point of indecision, not of majority rule. And I don't believe it's what the founding fathers intended. It shifts our national discussion to the margins and to marginal issues instead of central problems. Not, "What should we do about climate change?" to "Is there climate change?" Not, "What should we do about economics reform?" but, "Should we do economic reform?"

    "I can't help but wonder if, with only the need for 50% in the senate, citizens civil engagement would improve. Would less chance to derail things on the margins lead to more energy into policy development? Would citizens develop a more pragmatic view of what should be done because of the increased likeliness that something's going to be done? Would this help change our political discussions from horse-races of people (examples: Can Nancy get this through the House, will Olympia provide the extra vote? Why can't Obama get his agenda through Congress?) to the details of policy because some policy is more likely to be passed?

    "I believe getting rid of the filibuster would, in the long run, make the country a more civil place by moving that tipping point back to our Senate.

    "Disclaimer: My mother owns a race horse. Harness racing in Maine is like NASCAR before it was popular, but with chariots instead of cars and betting instead of breakdowns. Both, like our political and economic systems, have crashes."

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  • The filibuster: let's talk about it

    In a discussion with Guy Raz this afternoon on Weekend All Things Considered, after he evoked a chagrining personal admission*, we touched on a point that I think needs to be elevated from a background/insider's issue to absolutely first-tier consideration in mainstream political discourse. It has to do with the distorting and destructive effect of the Senate's modern "60 votes to get anything done" system of operation.

    I say "modern" because, contrary to the tone of most day-by-day political reportage, this is not some timeless feature of American constitutional design. In newspaper accounts, you read things like this -- the second paragraph of an (otherwise very good) NYT story today on the struggles over health care reform:

    "To get the 60 votes needed to pass their bill, Democrats scrapped the idea of a government-run public insurance plan, cherished by liberals, and replaced it with a proposal for nationwide health plans, which would be offered by private insurers under contract with the government."

    Of course, the number of votes the Democrats need to pass their bill is a simple majority -- 51 votes at most. ("At most" because a 50-50 tie would be broken by the Vice President, who of course is now a Democrat.) The reason we talk and act as if "majority" = "60 votes" is that in the past 25 years, something that was an exceptional, last-ditch measure has turned into a damaging routine.

    The history here is well known to everyone interested in politics but worth summarizing. For most of the first 190 years of the country's operation, U.S. Senators would, in unusual circumstances, try to delay a vote on measures they opposed by "filibustering" -- talking without limit or using other stalling techniques. For most of those years, the Senate could cut off the filibuster and force a vote by imposing "cloture," which took a two-thirds majority of those voting (at most 67 of 100 Senators). In 1975, the Senate adopted a rules change to allow cloture with 60 votes, and those are the rules that still prevail.

    The significant thing about filibusters through most of U.S. history is that they hardly ever happened. But since roughly the early Clinton years, the threat of filibuster has gone from exception to routine, for legislation and appointments alike, with the result that doing practically anything takes not 51 but 60 votes. So taken for granted is the change that the nation's leading paper can offhandedly say that 60 votes are "needed to pass their bill." In practice that's correct, but the aberrational nature of this change should not be overlooked. (The Washington Post's comparable story is more precise: "A bloc of 60 votes is the exact number required to choke off the filibuster, the Senate minority's primary source of power, and the GOP's best hope of defeating the bill.")

    Again, this is a very well-explored issue in the academic literature and much of the blog world. For blog and magazine discussions, see here, here, here, here, and here. An authoritative academic treatment came from David Mayhew, of Yale, in his 2002 James Madison lecture for the American Political Science Association. It is available here in PDF and very much worth reading. Sample passage:

    "That topic is supermajority rule in the U.S. Senate-- that is, the need to win more than a simple majority of senators to pass laws. Great checker and balancer though Madison was, this feature of American institutional life would probably have surprised him and might have distressed him....
    "Automatic failure for bills not reaching the 60 mark. That is the current Senate practice, and in my view it has aroused surprisingly little interest or concern among the public or even in political science. It is treated as matter- of-fact. One might ask: What ever happened to the value of majority rule?

    Everything I have mentioned here is familiar, including the fact that this newly-invented "check" was not part of the original check-and-balance constitutional design. But somehow it isn't familiar, in the sense of being part of general understanding and mainstream coverage of issues like the health reform bill. Talk shows analyze exactly how the Administration can get to 60 votes; they don't discuss where the 60-vote practice came from and what it has done to public life. I have a gigantic article coming out soon in the Atlantic -- long even by our standards! but interesting! -- which concerns America's ability to address big public problems, compared in particular with China's. The increasing dysfunction of public institutions, notably the Senate, is a big part of this story. 

    As I think my article will make clear, this isn't a partisan question -- even though in any given administration it presents itself as one. (For the record, I support the health-care plan and am glad the Administration found the 60 votes.) Also for the record, as the chart below shows, the huge increase in threatened filibusters came from the Republican minority, after the Democrats took back the Senate in 2007. Since the time covered by this chart, the number of threatened (Republican) filibusters has shot up even more dramatically. Still, whoever is in control, this is a more basic and dangerous threat to the ability of any elected American government to address the big issues of its time. And the paralysis of working through the legislature is all the worse because of the contrast with modern presidents' de facto ability to make war-and-peace decisions essentially on their own.

    Gumming Up the Works.jpg

    The point in raising the issue: not that it's a revelation to insiders but that it has to become more broadly known. Plus, check your mailboxes for our next issue.
    * When he began by asking whether I'd been out in our local blizzard, I had to confess that my main exposure was to watch supportively through the window as my wife shoveled the path to the street shown here. In my own defense: she spent her early years in Minnesota and claims to like the snow.

    More »

  • I will say this for the WaPo! (updated)

    Somehow they managed to get a newspaper to our house in DC this morning.


    Yeah, yeah, I know this would be nothing in Chicago, Duluth, Buffalo. etc. But this is quasi-Dixieish DC. I also realize that the NYT might be under there somewhere, to be discovered come the springtime thaw.


    Update: it's now 4:30, and too dark to take a picture, but snow about a foot 9" deeper than shown above.

    Update 2: My friend CK reminds me that I have found the answer to my rhetorical Mais où sont les neiges question posed recently. Les neiges, elles sont arrivées.


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