The death-by-filibuster of the Buffett Rule in the Senate yesterday revealed, among other things, that the news media still has a ways to go in learning how to report on the era of the 60-vote Senate.
Most Americans, not surprisingly, do not realize that majorities can no longer get their way in the Senate. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that most key votes in the Senate were based on simple majority voting. Only since 1993 has constant filibustering been common, and only in 2009 did Republicans create a situation in which virtually everything requires a supermajority. Reporting in these circumstances is a bit tricky, but if you are going to tell the full story of a bill killed by filibuster, you need to report not just the outcome — a bill lost — but that majority sentiment was thwarted by a minority.
So, how did the major papers do yesterday? Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post had the word “filibuster” in their on-line front page headlines or teasers. The Post story does get the “F” word into her second paragraph, which is good. The Times story merely refers to the 60 votes the Democrats “needed” to pass the bill, without mentioning that the 60 votes were “needed” to break a GOP filibuster until way down in the eighth paragraph. Politico called it a “filibuster” in the second graf. But none of the three stories said explicitly that a minority of Senators defeated a majority.
CNN’s web story was particularly awful, reporting simply that “the Democrats fell nine votes short.” There was no mention of a filibuster, or that the “nine votes short” added up a 51 vote majority — so no one reading the story could deduce that a majority of the Senate favored the policy. The Los Angeles Times, in a broader story, also claimed that the Buffett Rule was blocked by “Republican-led opposition,” whatever that means. Again, no mention at all of a filibuster, or which way the majority voted.
None of this is good enough. Whether one supports the filibuster, opposes it, or (as I do) hopes for a middle course, it’s simply not informative enough to just say that something was “blocked” without explaining that it was blocked by a minority of Senators who deployed a filibuster.
The decision of the Republican minority to create the 60 vote Senate — and the willingness of the Democratic majority to go along with it — remains perhaps the most important single structural fact of Congressional procedure. It has been at least as important as any other factor in shaping Obama’s legislative agenda. And news organizations still aren’t telling readers and viewers the full truth about what’s happening.