George Orwell on the Filibuster

By James Fallows

From today's Politico story about the prospect that an assault-weapons ban will be filibustered in the Senate. Note the three passages in boldface:

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a hugely controversial ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips, but the measure faces nearly certain defeat on the Senate floor....

The Senate now faces a floor fight in coming weeks over Democrats' push to dramatically alter U.S. gun laws for the first time in two decades. While the Feinstein assault weapons ban is unlikely to overcome GOP opposition and get a vote -- as well as concerns from red state Democrats up for reelection in 2014 -- Democrats and the White House will continue their drive to enact universal background checks on all gun sales.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, acknowledged that the assault weapons ban will have a hard time overcoming opposition. "It's pretty clear the other side is locked in opposition [to assault weapons ban.] -- [I] don't see us getting 60 votes," Whitehouse said, referring to the necessary bar to pass the Senate.

I recognize that this theme now lacks novelty value. But here is why it matters to track an engineered usage-change as it is underway:

  • It takes 51 votes to "pass the Senate."
  • It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.
  • Through the past six-plus years, the GOP minority-power strategy in the Senate has deliberately aimed to make the filibuster, historically a rarity, seem routine and acceptable. Every news account that presents the super-majority 60-vote threshold as the "necessary bar" for Senate passage, and a majority of 55 votes as "certain defeat," ratifies this strategy. Especially in an "informed" insider political-specialist publication.

OrwellTyping.jpgIt wouldn't take any extra space to make things clear. The first highlighted passage could say "nearly certain filibuster" rather than "nearly certain defeat." The last passage could say "necessary bar to break a filibuster" rather than "necessary bar to pass the Senate." To look on the bright side, the middle highlighted reference is exactly right: the strategy is designed to keep the proposal from ever coming to a vote. (Thanks to AS for the lead.)

OK, I can't resist: Let's bring George Orwell to bear on this question. Naturally I'm talking about "Politics and the English Language":

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/03/george-orwell-on-the-filibuster/274037/