False Equivalence Watch: Another Strong Contender

Maybe the leading newspaper is testing readers to see if we're paying attention. At least I hope that's the explanation.

(Please see update below.) It's from today's NYT, in the form of an unfortunate account of why so little actual legislation is making its way through Congress:

The chaos reflects the reality that Congress has largely been reduced from a lawmaking entity to a political operation, in which positions are taken and fermented largely in the name of maintaining party unity rather than attracting votes from the other side. In both the Senate, controlled by Democrats, and the House, under the rule of Republicans, the minority is largely powerless to do anything but protest.

Actually, no. The point of that paragraph is that Congress is suffering from symmetrical paralysis, which is exactly wrong.

In the House, a minority is indeed "largely powerless." Just ask Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, et al about how life has changed since 2010.

In the Senate, it's very different. There a minority is extremely powerful. Just ask Mitch McConnell, who has made 60 votes -- not a simple majority of 51 -- the de-facto minimum for getting either nominees or legislation approved. 

Here's one way to think about it: in both the Senate and the House, the minority party has about the same proportional strength. The Republicans now have 46 Senate seats, obviously 46 percent of the total. And the 201 Democrats in the House are just over 46 percent of its makeup. 

But in the House, those 46 percent might as well be 0 percent, since everything is run by majority vote. While in the Senate, 46 percebt is a fully empowered blocking minority -- which can keep judgeships vacant, legislation from being approved, and essentially anything else from being done. That is, as long as they vote as a bloc, as they usually have; and are committed to making the filibuster not an emergency matter but a daily routine, as under McConnell they have done.

Another way to look at it is via a chart like this one:Filib2.jpg

For details on that chart, see a Harvard Journal of Legislation article; for background and analysis, plus a more elaborate chart, see these two great explainers from WonkBlog last year. For instance:

Between 1840 and 1900, there were 16 filibusters. Between 2009 and 2010, there were more than 130. But that's changed. Today, Majority Leader Harry Reid says that "60 votes are required for just about everything."

At the core of [the Harvard Journal] argument is a very simple claim: This isn't what the Founders intended. The historical record is clear on that fact. The framers debated requiring a supermajority in Congress to pass anything. But they rejected that idea.

In Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton savaged the idea of a supermajority Congress, writing that "its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junta, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority."

I could go on, but I figure that at this point anyone who thinks about politics has thought about the modern challenge of governing under "super-majority" conditions. And people at the NYT have to be aware of this too, right? I mean, they couldn't not be. So how can a story about Congressional dysfunction in 2013 ignore the starkly different situations of minority power on the two different sides of Capitol Hill? 

Time to reflect on that one with a beer. Meanwhile thanks to the dozens of people who wrote in about this one. Hey, you might write to the NYT as well.


UPDATE: Here is the way the relevant paragraph now reads in the online version of the Times, with no indication that it has been changed from what was there before.

In the House, under the rule of Republicans, the minority is largely powerless to do anything but protest. Senate Republicans at least have the power to filibuster, which helps explain why they are so adamantly opposed to the Democrats' gambit.

In fairness, the paper also got this change into the printed version that arrived this morning, so the false-equivalent rendering of history was confined to the advance-web edition that appeared yesterday afternoon and evening online. In general, it's good policy to take note of important additions, deletions, or corrections -- but let's assume that the NYT viewed the print edition as the "real" version of the story, and be grateful that the word "filibuster" appeared there.

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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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