Why They Filibuster

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James Fallows continues to be gloomy about both the state of American democracy and the ability of the American media to describe it:

Main problem: the decision by Mitch McConnell’s GOP Senate minority, once they lost their majority status in the 2006 elections, to filibuster nearly every item of public business….De facto, the Constitution has been amended to change the Senate from a majority-rule body to one requiring a 60-vote “supermajority.”

….‘Enabler’ problem: The reluctance of the mainstream media to call this what it is, and instead to talk about “partisanship” and “logjam” and “dysfunction.”….We had illustrations in the past few days from the NYT and, in jaw-dropping fashion, yesterday from the WaPo. And earlier this morning I was listening to a political “analysis” show on the radio that was all about this sad modern predicament of Congressional gridlock. The word “filibuster” was not used in that hour, unless it was during the minute I was plunging my head into the toilet tank in despair.

I don’t feel like slitting my wrists today, so I’ll just make a couple of related notes. First, keep in mind that dysfunction really is the goal here. Republicans filibuster even measures they support, and they do it solely to suck up calendar time. In these cases, the goal isn’t to defeat legislation, it’s explicitly to make sure that the Senate simply can’t conduct very much business.

Second, it might seem odd that Senate Republicans are keeping this up. After all, the House is in GOP hands these days, so they don’t really need to filibuster legislation anymore. If they wanted to, they could just shrug, let the Democrats pass whatever they want, and then let it all pile up and die in the House. But they don’t. They don’t even want to allow Dems a vote on legislation. Why?

Well, partly it’s because the Senate is still solely responsible for confirming presidential nominations, and tying up the Senate calendar on procedural votes helps prevent a lot of nominees from being confirmed. But mainly it’s because of how the press treats this. If the Senate holds only a cloture vote, and it fails, the press doesn’t report it as a vote on the bill itself. It’s a “procedural motion” or some such. This means Democrats don’t get any public credit for voting Yes on a popular bill and Republicans don’t get any public blame for voting No.

So how should the press handle this? In practice, cloture votes are now votes on bills. So maybe the press should simply report them that way. But they won’t, because that’s not quite accurate. Besides, it would also require headlines like “Bill Fails, 56-44.” That would be accurate, but it seems sort of ridiculous and I imagine that copy desks don’t like it. So the American public is shielded from just how ridiculous it is. Basically, the pathologies of the American press work entirely in the GOP’s favor on this particular topic, and they take full advantage of it.

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