Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Blame Obama and Reid for NYT Weasel Words

James Fallows had a good catch this morning on the New York Times headline about the jobs bill, which failed to get cloture last night in the Senate. The complaint is that the Times failed (in the headline) to make it clear that the bill was blocked by a filibuster, rather than "defeated" by a simple majority.

Fair enough, but this is a case where the press is basically following the lead of the consensus from leaders of both parties to treat the 60 vote Senate as a fact of life. And for that, the blame clearly falls on the Democrats, and on Barack Obama and Harry Reid in particular. Neither reacted strongly to the unprecedented decision of the Republicans to filibuster everything in 2009. For that matter, Senate liberals didn't really put up much of a fuss for some time.

In part, that's because Reid's position -- which I believe is totally reasonable -- is a hard one to make into a soundbite; after all, he supports the traditional Senate rules, and even relatively frequent filibusters. He just doesn't support the current level. That's a lot harder to sell than "majority rule", even if it is justified.

On the other hand, I don't see what Obama's excuse was. It's possible that someone told him that highlighting the filibuster in 2009-2010 would antagonize Senate institutionalists including some Democrats (such as Robert Byrd, when he was still there), or that he drew that conclusion from his own time in the Senate. It's possible that he also supports (more limited) filibusters, putting him in the same boat as Reid. Or perhaps it was part of his "be friendly to Republicans" approach. Whichever way, I'd say it was a mistake; the institutional role of the presidency is to bash Congress for it's procedural difficulties, and Obama failed to do that.

And with Obama and Reid acting as if everything was normal, the neutral press mostly followed. Just as when Republicans acted as if reconciliation was some sort of strange procedure, the neutral press described it as controversial.

Again, I'm not for eliminating the filibuster (although I am for modifying it). But Barack Obama should have been fighting against it, whatever he really thought about it. Not because it would have affected NYT headline writers, although it would have, but because only by threatening to get rid of it by majority vote if necessary would Democrats be able to bargain for keeping filibuster frequency at much lower levels than it wound up being.


  1. I would agree with you about reforming, rather than eliminating, the filibuster if it wasn't apparent that Congress is hopelessly dysfunctional and corrupt. As it stands, however, all it accomplishes is to obscure responsibility for why the Senate cannot produce popular legislation. After all, the Democrats have a majority of the seats; if they can't pass a sensible bill, then who else could possibly be to blame. Majority rule may be a blunt instrument, but it may be necessary to re-establish some accountability between Senators and their constituents.

  2. " the institutional role of the presidency is to bash Congress for it's procedural difficulties, and Obama failed to do that."

    Surely the role of the presidency is to get as much of its legislative programme accomplished as possible. If whining about filibusters reduces successful outcomes, surely shouldn't be doing it. And during the first two years with Nelson aware of his extra power as the first deserting vote, why emphasize? From where I sit, more significant legislation got through during the first 2 years than any President since LBJ, and arguably since FDR.(Although it seems no seems to have noticed or can remember)

    It used to be that the media played referee, and pointed out when someone said or did something stupid or outrageous. Reality based politicians have lost that advantage, and they have been slow in picking up on it. Why the change in media opus operandi? Is it concentration of ownership or desire to duck hateful response?

  3. JC: I think the media has gotten lazy. Refereeing requires an investment of time and intellect to figure out what is true, so that you can point those things out. However, being a pretty face on TV and saying "well, let's let both sides spout talking points, then you decide" doesn't require much at all.

  4. MJ; I find it difficult to believe that all media have turned into Ted Baxters. Surely many think they are the smartest guy on stage, and it would be easy, and not very work intensive to show, for example, what an idiot Bachmann was with the cost of the President's trip to India. It seems more logical that it is orders coming from above to only play the he says she says game.

  5. Odd, you were probably all in favor of the filibuster when your party was in the minority, but now that you're in the majority (just barely right now), you want the filibuster gone. Think it through though- if the Democrats lose control of the Senate in 2012, are you really going to be singing this tune, or are your opinions completely worthless and they shift with the times?

  6. Hey folks,

    This is a great example of the partisan mind at work. Conservative Teacher is so sure that this is a partisan Democratic site that operates the way he or she expects that we get assurances of how I'll switch from my anti-filibuster stance when the partisan context changes -- despite the obvious fact that it says above that I'm "not for eliminating the filibuster."

    That's not, by the way, something that one only finds on the GOP side. It's how partisanship works, and it's awful hard to guard against even if you're aware of it and trying.

  7. Conservative Teacher shows up regularly at LG&M--definitely an unabashed troll. Content to take a few swipes at commentors/bloggers, usually at some imagined, projected point.

    Nice to see that he/she gets around.


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