Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hey, Reporters (Filibuster Vocabulary Edition)

OK, reporters writing about the Senate. This is a bit tricky, but here's what you want to do. When the minority party blocks a nomination or a bill when a simple majority was available for passage or confirmation, what you want to say is that the nomination (say) was defeated by filibuster. As in: the Senate today defeated by filibuster the nomination of Caitlin Halligan for the DC Circuit.

What you don't want is, as the WaPo's Felicia Sonmez put it in an otherwise very nice story, that "Republicans on Tuesday filibustered the nomination." Why not? Because they've been filibustering it all along, not just on Tuesday -- and because they would have been filibustering even if they had failed to sustain it in the cloture vote. That is, a filibuster that fails to stop something is still a filibuster (after all, we all call what Strom Thurman did in 1957 a filibuster, even though eventually he lost and the bill passed). Politico's Scott Wong also had it wrong with similar wording. The Hill's Josiah Ryan had the somewhat better "The Senate voted to sustain a filibuster," but unfortunately the headline was the terrible "Senate GOP votes to defeat...", which takes the filibuster out entirely and suggests that a majority voted against Halligan. The AP had "blocked...failed to break a filibuster," which is probably the best of the lot.

But I'd highly recommend "defeated by filibuster." Or, if you want to be even more accurate and convey more information: "defeated by minority filibuster." It's concise, and includes the two crucial facts: that the nomination was in fact defeated, and that the means of defeat was a filibuster.

Remember, Senate Republicans -- breaking with precedent -- declared as soon as Barack Obama was elected that they would institute a true 60 vote Senate, which means that they have resolved to filibuster ever single bill and every single nomination, something that has never been done before. And they've followed through; I believe that they did allow one nomination to get through without 60 votes this year, but that's about it. The fact that they are doing so is an ongoing important story, and while obviously beat reporters aren't going to write about that all the time, they shouldn't hide it in their standard descriptions of what's happening, either.

8 comments:

  1. It’s great that you are highlighting this issue. The Senate supermajority requirement is the black hole of American politics. Everything gets sucked into it’s orbit.

    Imagine how the 111th congress would have been different if a simple majority could pass legislation in the Senate. The ACA, stimulus, and financial reg. would have been very different. DREAM, and Disclose would have passed (and cap-and-trade?). There would be a very different story of the Obama presidency.

    But...

    While we’re talking terminology ‘filibuster’ is really misleading term and we should discourage its use.

    To the limited extent that anyone is familiar with the term, to ‘filibuster’ mean to give a long speech - and the mind’s eye conjures something passionate and heartfelt (damn you Jimmy Stewart!). And that is absolutely NOT what’s going on the US Senate.

    The rules don’t require any speeches. They just don’t vote to agree that they are done talking about whether or not they will introduce a piece of legislation or nomination. EVEN THOUGH NOBODY IS TALKING ABOUT IT. They just refuse to agree to that they can move on.

    It’s not a filibuster.

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  2. swain,

    Sorry, but it is a filibuster; it's just that not all filibusters look like Jimmy Stewart. They never have, really, but they certainly haven't in the Senate for forty years now. It's true that most people don't know that, but I'd say this: it's more accurate to risk that people will have the mistaken impression that McConnell and the Republicans defeated something by giving neverending speeches than to give people the mistaken impression that a majority of the Senate defeated something when in fact it was a minority.

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  3. I use the term "perpetual supermajority requirement" to highlight the facts that:

    1) The minority is blocking legislation supported by the majority.
    2) They can (and do!) do this all the time.
    3) No speeches were made or required as part of the obstruction.

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  4. I like "defeated by minority filibuster." But I doubt that the average newspaper reader will get a real understanding of it unless it is used consistently for several years.

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  5. "Remember, Senate Republicans -- breaking with precedent -- declared as soon as Barack Obama was elected that they would institute a true 60 vote Senate, which means that they have resolved to filibuster ever single bill and every single nomination, something that has never been done before. And they've followed through; I believe that they did allow one nomination to get through without 60 votes this year, but that's about it."

    Here is the Senate voting record this year. You'll find nearly forty judges confirmed this year. I didn't count the number of rejections, but by my count, it's two, Liu and Halligan. They hardly disallowed all nominations from going through.

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  6. SteveAR,

    They've required 60 on (almost) everything. Since they don't always stay unified, they don't always have the votes to stop all nominations...but they're demanding 60, not a simple majority, on them.

    They haven't defeated any district judges, but defeating by filibuster two circuit court nominees in one year is a big deal; I believe they're the 4th and 5th circuit judges *ever* defeated by losing a cloture vote. Others have been defeated by filibuster without the majority staging a cloture vote, to be fair, but that's two of the five ever to go down that way.

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    ReplyDelete
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