See If You Can Guess How Many People Voted 'For' and 'Against' This Bill

From The Hill today:


I'm highlighting cases like as a way of documenting a "change in norms," in real time. (Thanks to reader CS for the tip.) The "rules versus norms" question is increasingly important for understanding what's happening to our system of self-government - including what's happening with the Supreme Court, as I'll get to soon.

Thumbnail image for 480px-Cloture_Voting,_United_States_Senate,_1947_to_2008.svg.pngAs far as the Senate is concerned, the rules permitting bills to be filibustered have been in place for a long time. But until the past few years, the norms of Senate action had reserved the filibuster for truly exceptional showdowns. Then, starting five years ago, Sen. Mitch McConnell's Republican minority accelerated a preexisting trend and ramped up filibuster threats to historically unprecedented levels. (Chapter and verse in posts collected here). Since essentially every bill or nomination is now subject to a filibuster threat, a change of norms has de facto become a change of rules. And -- as I've mentioned a mere four or five million times to date -- the Constitution has been so thoroughly de facto amended that a sitting Supreme Court justice can say that it "takes" 60 votes to get Senate business done, and an authoritative newspaper covering Congress can say that a bill was "defeated" by a vote of 51 to 47, with 51 Senators voting "yes." This latest story does not even contain the word filibuster.

Is this a matter of necessary journalistic compression? No. The headline above would have fit just as well if it read "Senate blocks Democrats' measure..."  And the crucial explanatory sentence in the second paragraph could just as easily have said "Sixty votes were needed to break a filibuster on the measure."

Press coverage like this, or comments like Antonin Scalia's, obviously did not drive the transformation of Senate norms. But they certainly ratify it. There will come a time when "informed" readers have no idea that the Senate ever was able to pass important measures on "merely" a majority vote.  And I'll save for another time the zillionth discourse on why the conversion of the Senate into a minority-veto body is destructive, no matter which party is in control.

Update: The day after the item with its misleading headline went up, it's still there, headline uncorrected.
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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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