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On Filibuster, It’s Past Time to End “False Equivalence“

(Photo: Chris Watkins / Flickr)

The Senate’s dubious vote on gun background checks last Wednesday is a study in at least three different layers of failure. There is the basic failure of our elected officials to enact into law safety measures endorsed by a vast majority of Americans. There is the failure of Senate leaders to embrace procedural rules that restore the constitutional requirement (and historical practice) of enacting laws by simple majority vote. And there is the widespread failure of the media to accurately describe the nature of the continuous filibuster that exists today requiring a super-majority vote for any remotely contentious measure. All of the layers interconnect with one another. All are, in essence, self-inflicted wounds.

The first two failures are sins of commission — politics being placed above governance in the most tangible way conceivable at great cost to the American people. The last failure is a sin of omission — journalists being unwilling or unable to relay to their audiences the truth of what they are seeing with their own eyes. The Brennan Center for Justice already has chimed in, and will continue to do so, on the first two failures and what they mean for the future of politics in America. I’d like to briefly highlight here the third failure. In the name of journalistic “fairness,” in trying to appear “objective” or at least not to be “taking sides,” many reporters are in fact aiding the political cause of Senate obstructionists at the expense of everyone else.

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By trying not to be partisan, at least in this area of political coverage, we journalists are in many ways becoming more partisan than we fear. James Fallows, the author and longtime correspondent at The Atlantic, has been preaching for years now about “false equivalence” in reporting about the Senate’s current gridlock. He has called out reporters and editors, producers and television hosts, headline writers and analysts, for their continuing failure to call it like it really is when it comes to these Senate votes. For example, on Wednesday, in the wake of the background check vote, which “passed” the Senate by a vote of 54-46 but effectively “failed” because of the threat of a filibuster, Fallows again explained the concept. He wrote:

Since the Democrats regained majority control of the Senate six years ago, the Republicans under Mitch McConnell have applied filibuster threats (under a variety of names) at a frequency not seen before in American history. Filibusters used to be exceptional. Now they are used as blocking tactics for nearly any significant legislation or nomination. The goal of this strategy, which maximizes minority blocking power in a way not foreseen in the Constitution, has been to make the 60-vote requirement seem routine. As part of the “making it routine” strategy, the minority keeps repeating that it takes 60 votes to “pass” a bill — and this Orwellian language-redefinition comes one step closer to fulfillment each time the press presents 60 votes as the norm for passing a law.

News consumers, in other words, are led to believe that what is happening is just “politics as usual,” tit-for-tat, part of the murky vote-counting calculus that has always been a part of the Senate’s rules. But there is now ample evidence to suggest that this tactic has fundamentally changed the way Congress works. In 2009 alone, the Brennan Center’s Diana Kasdan told me last week, “there was double the number of filibusters that occurred in the entire 20-year period from 1950-1969, when they were used repeatedly and notoriously to block civil rights legislation.” In other words, today’s abuse of the filibuster is extraordinary. Yet Fallows gives many examples — actual headlines, probably hundreds of them over the years — in which journalists have refused or failed to properly communicate this to their audience. Without adequate context and perspective about what is happening in the Senate, the American people are hampered in how quickly they can force their elected officials to change (or, more accurately, to change their elected officials).

Hampered, but evidently moving in the right direction. “I believe we are approaching a tipping point,” Kasdan told me. “More and more Americans realize the obstructionist tactics in the Senate are not just inside the beltway games, but a fundamentally undemocratic process that directly and negatively affects their lives. People are waiting for years to have their cases heard, but a minority of the Senate continues to hold up, and block, judicial appointments. Ninety percent of Americans want Congress to pass a law requiring background checks for gun purchases, but a minority of the Senate was able to derail that legislation.”

Just think about how much less effective a filibuster threat might be if those same 90 percent of Americans clearly understood how one party today had effectively changed the concept of “majority rule” in the Senate. Knowledge is power and by obfuscating the truth of the current Senate’s work, the media is not doing nearly enough to give news consumers the power they need to fix the problem.

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