False Equivalence and the Filibuster: Now It's the Democrats' Turn

Since 2007, Senate Democrats have ground and gritted their teeth as Sen. Mitch McConnell's Republican minority has routinized the filibuster-threat to block just about any nomination or proposal. What have the Dems learned from the process? Unfortunately, when they're back in the minority, they're likely to use the weapon that has been used against them with unprecedented frequency. This will be better for them, worse for the country as a whole.

How will it look when they do so? We got a taste last week, with the "defeat" of the Keystone pipeline proposal. Consider this (representative) headline from The Hill:


By now it's hardly sporting even to ask how many votes were on the "reject" side. It's not 56, as an innocent reader of the headline might assume, but 42, all from the Democratic caucus. This article was one of countless reports of the Keystone issue that off-handedly asserted it takes 60 votes to "pass" a measure in the Senate. For instance, the New York Times*, with emphasis added:

The votes on the measures - which were attached to a large transportation bill and required 60 votes for passage - came after President Obama personally lobbied several Democrats to vote against one of the measures, White House officials said.

Why do I belabor the point that, instead of writing "and required 60 votes for passage," such stories should instead say "and required 60 votes to break a filibuster" or "required 60 votes to bring the measure to the floor"? Because the over-use of the filibuster threat these past five years amounts to a de facto Constitutional amendment, which the mainstream media are ratifying through matter-of-fact mention that the Senate "requires" or "was designed for" 60-vote "supermajorities" to get anything done.

As explained at length elsewhere, the Senate is non-representative enough as it is, without the imposed need for supermajority margins day in and day out. People as practical-minded as The Founding Fathers would never have agreed to a system in which small-population and large-population states alike have the same two votes, and also a small minority of those votes can block the majority from doing its business. In principle, a blocking minority of 41 Senators could come from states comprising less than 14 percent of the US population. You can't do public business this way -- the proof, again, is that the Founders' scheme of checks and balances intended the Senate to be a simple-majority body, with a few narrow exceptions.

The Democrats have seen how this approach works, and they'll naturally do they same thing when forced to. That's bad, but at least we can call what's happening by its real name. And this is a reminder that applies, once again, within the Atlantic's own family. A guest post by Avik Roy includes this aside: "Our story begins in the fall of 2009, when Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.) was trying to cobble together the necessary 60 votes to pass the Affordable Care Act."

Unt-uh!, Atlantic web editors and contributors. Harry Reid was trying to cobble together the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster -- so that they he could pull together the 51 votes necessary to pass the Affordable Care Act. That's all on this theme for now. Next up: why war with Iran is not likely to occur.
* Another NYT item, from the admirable dot-earth site, had a mild variation:

Certain political realities in Washington, particularly the need for 60 votes in the Senate to move significant legislation, are a daunting roadblock to just about any push for change.
"Move" is a modest improvement over "pass" or "enact." But why can't we just say "need for 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster"? If it adds too many words, I can find offsetting cuts.
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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.


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