For the Love of God, Just Call It a Filibuster

The political press doesn't like to "take sides." But it is enabling a destructive partisan strategy.

I am in Internet range for only a few minutes, so let me just type this right out:

  1. Today a provision that would increase background checks for gun purchases was blocked in the Senate, even though consideration of the bill was supported by 54 senators representing states that make up (at quick estimate) at least 60 percent of the American population.
  2. The bill did not fail to "pass" the Senate, which according to Constitutional provisions and accepted practice for more than two centuries requires a simple majority, 51 votes. Even 50 votes should do it, since the vice president is constitutionally empowered to cast the tie-breaking and deciding vote, and Joe Biden would have voted yes.
  3. It failed because a 54-vote majority was not enough to break the threat of a filibuster, which (with some twists of labeling) was the real story of what happened with this bill. Breaking the filibuster would have required 60 votes.
  4. Since the Democrats regained majority control of the Senate six years ago, the Republicans under Mitch McConnell have applied filibuster threats (under a variety of names) at a frequency not seen before in American history. Filibusters used to be exceptional. Now they are used as blocking tactics for nearly any significant legislation or nomination. The goal of this strategy, which maximizes minority blocking power in a way not foreseen in the Constitution, has been to make the 60-vote requirement seem routine.
  5. As part of the "making it routine" strategy, the minority keeps repeating that it takes 60 votes to "pass" a bill -- and this Orwellian language-redefinition comes one step closer to fulfillment each time the press presents 60 votes as the norm for passing a law.

Yes, this is the 20 millionth time I have made this point. (Recently here, with special Orwell-homage.) But here is why it is worth noting again. Just in the past few minutes readers have sent in these illustrations of the success of step No. 5, above:

From Business Insider (source of screen grab above):


With Vice President Joe Biden presiding over the Senate, an amendment to expand background checks on gun purchases failed to pass through the body, falling by a mostly partisan vote of 54-46...

Sixty votes were needed to pass the legislation through the Senate.

No, 60 votes were needed to break the filibuster threat. Note that in the "mostly partisan vote of 54-46" the 54 senators were voting for the measure.

From Politico, emphasis added:

The Senate has rejected a bipartisan proposal to expand background checks on firearms and close the so-called gun show loophole, handing President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders a major defeat on one of the key pieces of the president's second-term agenda.

The vote was 54-46, with only four Republicans crossing the aisle and voting with the Democrats in favor of the bipartisan proposal by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Sixty votes were needed.

I won't add the line-by-line explication because you can do it yourselves. Actually, I can't resist: that last passive-voice sentence calls out for "to break a filibuster threat." Look at this home-page splash from Politico (below), and imagine if it said what actually happened: "GOP filibusters gun control."

Or if you prefer, "Senate filibusters gun control." Either would fit the space.

The NYT, to its credit, changed the headline on its story from the first one shown below to the second version. Early headline:

Later (and as of this moment current) version, for the same story:
The story itself describes the results this way:
In rapid succession, a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks for would-be gun purchasers, a ban on assault weapons and a ban on high-capacity gun magazines all failed to get the 60 votes needed under an agreement both parties had reached to consider the amendments.
Here's a clearer statement of the reality from an anti-filibuster group called Fix the Senate Now. Its careful phrasing works around the fact that opponents didn't want this to be called a filibuster (see points 4 and 5) but were applying the same filibuster 60-vote standard.
This is becoming an old story, but it bears emphasis. The Republican strategy is No. 4 on the list above. And press compliance brings about step No. 5.
Bonus update: WaPo homepage. Now I will be offline for several hours again.


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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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