Thursday, October 31, 2013

Of Course McConnell Has Blocked the Senate 400 Times

Earlier this week, Glenn Kessler wrote one of the puzzling fact-check columns I've seen in a while. It was over a claim by Democratic challenger Allison Lundergan Grimes that Mitch McConnell has "blocked the Senate over 400 times."

And right up until the final two paragraphs, it was a fine column; in fact, I'd say it was an excellent, first-rate job. Up to those final two paragraphs.

Kessler makes a number of good points. He recognizes that cloture votes and filibusters are not the same thing. Correct! He recognizes that some cloture votes fail. Correct! And he gets the key point:
Some political scientists have argued that in effect, with 60 votes required for passage on almost any bill, a filibuster is in place for every piece of legislation.

By this logic, counting cloture motions is a very poor substitute for counting filibusters — and that’s why an anecdotal feeling that the Senate is snarled does not show up in the raw statistics.
If you're wondering, that "have argued" would be me, and the "some political scientists" is Sarah Binder, who said in the linked item: "First, let’s put to rest the debate about whether insisting on sixty votes to cut off debate on a nomination is a filibuster or, at a minimum, a threatened filibuster.  It is."

Now, Kessler also makes the reasonable point that attributing all these filibusters to McConnell in particular is at least open to argument.

Anyway, up to that point, it's an excellent item. And not just because he cited me! It's a very complicated topic, and he lays it out in what seems to me to be an accurate and easy to understand way.

Given all of that, I think there are two reasonable ways Kessler could have concluded. One is to just say that everything is filibustered, McConnell is Minority Leader and therefore bears at least some responsibility each time, and so yes, the hit is accurate. In my view, that would have been the best choice. The other -- and I would have had very little problem with it -- is to say that counting filibusters turns out to be very difficult, and whether McConnell "blocked" the Senate 400 times depends on interpreting things that can legitimately be interpreted multiple ways, and therefore the best thing to do is to lay out the facts and stop there with no rating.

Instead, I was absolutely shocked that he finished:
In any case, the Grimes campaign made an elemental error in not understanding the difference between “filibusters” and “blocking” action in the Senate. A number of the cloture motions that Reid has filed were intended to speed things up, to suit his parliamentary preferences, rather than in response to something McConnell specifically had done.

The Grimes campaign might have been on stronger ground if it offered specific examples of what it considered obstruction by McConnell. But, as a matter of math and basic understanding of Senate procedure, this ad falls short.

Three Pinocchios
(That's three on a scale of one-to-four, with three being "Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions").

I don't get it at all. I think what he's saying is that to "block" something is to prevent its passage, as opposed to just delaying it. But surely that's not the only plausible definition of "block" in that context. And at any rate, it's very possible that Republicans have blocked 400 things during the Obama era, if one counts items which never reached the floor thanks to a filibuster.

At any rate, just for the record, once again: Republicans have created a 60 vote Senate in which virtually every item is filibustered. That was never the case before January 2009; it's been the case ever since. 

11 comments:

  1. "Politifact" and Kessler are of course very low-hanging fruit as targets for criticism, but what I don't understand is what purpose they think they are supposed to serve.

    To me their purpose is to suss out misleading statements and identify them as spin or lies OR to suss out who is correct in a particular policy debate and separate themselves of the false equivalence narratives from most media members.

    But where they fall consistently is endorsing the very falsehoods they are designed to expose. How can you write paragraphs of support for a claim and then determine, well it just doesn't feel right... so everything I just argued is lies. I think Kessler and Politifact are worse than the partisan stream found on MSNBC, or FOX News… even worse than counterpoint crap like Crossfire and the worse than the worst the idiotic false equivalence we get on CNN.

    At least the other media outlets know who they are, Kessler and Politifact come off as trolls representing themselves as non-partisans. I just think they're as stupid as everyone else, if not more.

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    1. I strongly agree with this. The pseudo "Fact checking" movement within news outlets often risks being worse than useless. Rather than simply abjuring judgment by being bland and reverting to tics of evenhandedness, the fact-checker apparatus sets up an actively misleading structure.

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    2. It's more a symptom of the disease of nonpartisan journalism, than it is a good faith effort to cure or ameliorate it.

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    3. They're like any other "news" agency. The troubling thing for me is how misrepresentative they are... George Will could slap "Fact-Checker CEO" at the top of his op-eds and it would be given an air of credibility, despite the fact that he is beyond a hack.

      I wish that Ezra Klein and JB and, the other JB, Josh Barro and Sarah Binder and Chrystia Freeland and Ponnuru, created a cabal of great partisan and non-partisan minds to join forces creating an ACTUAL Fact check website (though they all do some form of it in their respective quarters through... journalism!!)

      It would have nuance and articulation that might not lend it self to simplistic "Pants on Fire" or "4 Pinnochios" but it would certainly be educational and helpful for the general public. Maybe they could fact-check the "fact-checkers." Forcing them to actually step up their game a bit.

      C'mon JB, Blow on the sea shell and unite the Gang of Intellectuals...

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  2. The problem of how do we count the uncountable is a real problem, though.

    I don't think you can claim "400" any more plausibly than 1000....or 40. The simple truth is that we can't really count these things.

    To the extent that is true, making a specific claim like "400" is a charge that can't be intelligently refuted. Grimes isn't lying, but would seem to be making up a number where one doesn't exist.

    The ideal rating would have been "no rating, noting that the spirit of the charge is correct, but the claim of a specific number is impossible"

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  3. I wonder if Kessler and his ilk have a tendency to screw the pooch more often in high-stakes fact-checks. That is, they can handle routine corrections pretty well, noting that (say) Fargo is actually in North Dakota, not South Dakota, but when they're dealing with claims potentially at the center of a campaign with national import, suddenly old journalistic habits kick in and they can't bring themselves to say that powerful Republicans (especially) are just basically wrong. Which, of course, means they can't fact-check such claims at all, making them least useful when they're most needed. Is there such a tendency? Don't know, just asking.

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    1. I wonder the same. It seems as if the only thing they can't speak truth to is power.

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    2. It certainly seems to be the case...

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    3. It's not about speaking truth to power, who know exactly what's up. It's about speaking truth to everyday citizens.

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    4. Speaking truth to power? Ha. The liberal media is much more in the business of speaking power to truth.

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    5. "The Liberal media is much more in the business of speaking truth to power'? That's your opinion - how about some facts?

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