Quietly changing the rules of democracy
The United States has made a dramatic change in its system of governance—with little debate or even attention paid in corporate media.
The change is the vastly increased importance of the filibuster, a parliamentary maneuver that allows a minority of lawmakers—under current Senate rules, 41 out of 100—to indefinitely extend debate and prevent a final vote. Once a curiosity invoked a handful of times during any two-year congressional session, the filibuster became more common starting in the 1970s; in the Clinton administration and early in the George W. Bush years, the Senate had to move to take a vote on whether or not to take a vote roughly 50 times per session (senate.gov). Still, filibusters were more the exception than the rule and were often pro forma; the vast majority of bills were allowed to come to the floor for an up-or-down vote without interference.
That changed when the Republicans lost control of the Senate in the 2006 elections. In 2007 and 2008, motions were filed to end filibusters a record 139 times, and they continued at a similar pace through 2009 (senate.gov). As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reported (3/19/09): “Now there is a routine filibuster, a standard permanent filibuster of all legislation. Everything takes a filibuster-overriding 60 votes to pass now, every major piece of legislation, no matter what.”
This is a major change in the way U.S. democracy operates, especially with the Senate already designed to amplify minority power. Counting each senator as representing half a state’s population, the 40 Republican senators together represent about 36 percent of the nation (NJ.com, 5/28/09); add another 0.3 percent for Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat (VoteView.com), and you have the effective size of the minority that can block virtually any action by the majority.
This kind of major change calls for a major debate; instead, corporate media have barely informed readers that the change has taken place. Even as the filibuster has attained a more powerful role than ever in U.S. politics, Washington journalists have changed the way they report on Senate business to make the tactic more invisible.
Using the Nexis database, Extra! looked at Washington Post articles that mentioned the Senate and “60 votes” in 1995, 2001 and 2009 (years when significant partisan shifts in Washington might make filibusters more newsworthy). The differences were striking. In 1995, the idea that a Senate action required 60 votes was always explicitly linked to the filibuster; often the reporter detailed what this meant, sometimes in rather pejorative terms—e.g., “Republican leaders failed in two attempts to muster the 60 votes needed to end Democratic stalling tactics and force a final vote” (10/13/95). When senatorial sources spoke in shorthand, the newspaper provided context: To a quote like “It might make it harder to get 60 votes,” the Post might add the gloss, “to cut off a filibuster” (4/25/95).
Six years later, the coverage was quite similar: When 60 votes were discussed, they were identified as being necessary to “break,” “block,” “cut off” or “thwart” a filibuster—sometimes defined negatively as “delaying tactics” (10/11/01) or “efforts to stall action” (12/4/01). There were just a couple of exceptions; in one, conservative pundit William Kristol (5/24/01) referred to “a Senate in which 60 votes are required except for one budget bill a year.”
In 2009 (up to October 27), by contrast, almost half the articles that referred to the need for 60 votes (50 out of 111) made no attempt to explain that this was a result of a minority filibuster; such pieces referred without context or qualification to “the necessary 60 votes in the Senate” (9/6/09) or the “60-vote threshold” (7/2/09); Shailagh Murray (2/5/09) wrote inaccurately of “the 60 votes needed for final passage.”
Occasionally there were allusions to the fact that the filibuster was being used in an unusual manner: “This 60-votes threshold in the Senate has grown on our constitutional arrangements like a third leg coming out of the side of your head,” noted a Michael Kinsley column (5/15/09). But more often it was depicted as just the way Washington works, as with David Broder (6/18/09) nodding to “the 60 votes most legislation requires.”
Part of the change may be that the Post is written more for Washington insiders than it used to be. Now when senators mention they are trying to get 60 votes, for example, the paper usually leaves it to the reader to figure out what that means—and why it is important.
Research: Valerie Doescher.