Just Use the Damned Word: Filibuster

Defining obstructionism down
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How not to do it: home page of the NYT just now. [And see intriguing update below.]

Careful students can follow along as we review what's wrong here:

1) "Necessary 60-vote threshold" implies some regular constitutional requirement, like the supermajorities necessary for impeachment trials or treaty approval. In fact incessant use of the filibuster is a recent, shift-of-norms phenomenon—and one of the goals of its practitioners is "defining obstructionism down" precisely so that its abuse will be treated as "necessary" and routine. 

2) "Fell short" and "stalled" are intransitive verbs suggesting a weakness, failure, or insufficiency. In fact the nomination received a clear majority of 56 Senators, who as it happens probably represent about two-thirds of the population, but it was actively blocked rather than petering out on its own. To be fair, the headline uses the word "reject." 

Courtesy of the WaPo, here is a how-to illustration of the way a lead story can note these realities:

 On point #1, we've got the plain word "filibuster." On point #2, we've got the transitive verbs "blocked" and "denied."

What's really going on here? Below you see the current lineup of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, usually considered to be the most important appeals court not simply because of its jurisdiction over many federal regulatory cases but also because so many Supreme Court nominees come from there. 

You'll see that the twice-elected Bill Clinton has three appointees on the court, as does the twice-elected George W. Bush. The single-term George H.W. Bush has one appointee, as does the current, twice-elected Barack Obama. The Republican filibuster strategy is an attempt to stall as long as possible before allowing Obama to fill those vacant seats. It's a kind of reverse court-packing, as Garrett Epps has explained; by extension, it's an attempt to spread abuse of the minority-blocking power in the Senate to another branch of government. Agree with the policy or disagree, but call it what it is. Please.


I take it back! Or something. Two minutes after posting, as I check the NYT story again to add its URL link, I see this quite hearteningly different first paragraph:

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s latest choice to fill one of the vacancies on a powerful appeals court went down in a filibuster on Tuesday as Senate Republicans blocked another White House nominee — the third in two weeks — and deepened a growing conflict with Democrats over presidential appointments.

 On the one hand, the previous version was up there for quite a while. Its posting time said 8:06 p.m.; I did a screen grab three-plus hours later. On the other hand, it's different now. However this came about, thanks.

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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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