Media Complicit in Allowing 60-Vote Threshold To Become Routine

April 22nd, 2013 · 3 Comments · journalism, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Senate Defeats Gun Proposals

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate on Wednesday rejected broader background checks for gun buyers and limits on the capacity of firearm magazines – proposals that had the support of both of New Mexico’s senators.

Let’s set aside one’s individual preferences on gun control measures (although polls show that 90 percent of Americans appear to favor such controls). Then, let’s look – through the lens of gun control stories – at how the minority party has taken control of voting in the Senate and how the media has become complicit in furthering vote outcomes resulting from that control.

The above headline and first paragraph appeared Thursday, April 18 as the Albuquerque Journal’s front-page coverage of the Senate gun bill votes.

Note how the headline says the Senate defeated gun proposals. Then, when reading the story and seeing the votes, we get these numbers:

  • On a reciprocity amendment (which would have expanded gun rights by requiring states with conceal-carry gun laws to recognize permits from other states): 57 for reciprocity, 43 against.
  • Background check bill: 54 for, 46 against.
  • A bill to limit gun magazine capacity to 10 rounds: 54 against, 46 for.

Then we read that an assault weapons ban was rejected 60 to 40. Even Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, New Mexico’s Democratic senators, voted against the ban, thinking the gun magazine capacity limit a more practical solution, according to the Journal. (The two senators gambled and lost on that.)

Are all of these votes “defeats”? The assault weapons ban proposal was clearly defeated with the 60-40 vote. But I’m among those old enough to remember when votes of 57-43 or 54-46 were clear majorities, when only two of these four bills would have been “defeats”. There was a time, in fact, when, even a 50-50 vote was enough for one side or another to claim a victory, once the vice president had stepped in as a tie breaker. In this case, Vice President Joe Biden’s position on gun control has been made clear, and therefore it’s clear how he would have voted.

But with this Senate, it takes 60 votes to get anything of substance accomplished. In writing his story, Journal Washington reporter Michael Coleman explained that the reciprocity amendment “was backed 57-43 but needed 60 votes to advance.”

He explained that the “background check measure was supported by a majority of senators, 54-46, but that was well short of the 60 votes needed to avert a filibuster and advance the proposal.”

Reporters come up with these tortuous explanations, which are hard for readers to understand, because of the tortuous road map the Senate has set for itself in voting on bills.

The problem here is that coverage – and not just in the Journal, but in media across the nation – relies on old-fashioned terms like “win” and “defeat” to describe what’s going on with the votes, when the actual story is quite different.

I’d like to rely on The Atlantic’s James Fallows to explain how the story should have been covered, because his frustration and rage in railing against this voting absurdity is so spot-on in his piece, “For the Love of God, Just Call It a Filibuster”. In that piece, he wrote, my emphasis added:

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.

Fallows posted examples of the press furthering the 60-votes-as-routine language. He quoted the Business Insider as saying, his emphasis added:

Sixty votes were needed to pass the legislation through the Senate.

Fallows then added:

No, 60 votes were needed to break the filibuster threat. Note that in the “mostly partisan vote of 54-46” the 54 senators were voting for the measure.

From Politico, again with his emphasis added, Fallows posted:

The Senate has rejected a bipartisan proposal to expand background checks on firearms and close the so-called gun show loophole, handing President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders a major defeat on one of the key pieces of the president’s second-term agenda.

The vote was 54-46, with only four Republicans crossing the aisle and voting with the Democrats in favor of the bipartisan proposal by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Sixty votes were needed.

Also posted on his story was the “home-page splash from Politico” (which carried the headline, “Senate Rejects Gun Control”), and he added:

. . . imagine if it said what actually happened: “GOP filibusters gun control.”

Since that post, Politico has actually changed its headline to the more accurate “Gun control bill hits brick wall in Senate”.

The New York Times is another that changed its headline, this one in time to be included in Fallows’ post. The Times initially had used the defeat meme (“Senate Rejects Bipartisan Background Check Measure”) on its story. But “to its credit,” as Fallows put it, the Times changed it to: “Drive for Gun Control Blocked in Senate.”

Both of these new headlines better reflect what happened with the Senate’s votes.

However, that still leaves the problem of the 60-votes-needed becoming routine, and the press helping it become so.

Again, thanks to Fallows, we get an example of how the story could have been reported:

Washington, DC – Because of the threat of a filibuster, the U.S. Senate today failed to pass the Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks for certain types of gun sales, blocking the amendment by a 54-46 margin. Although the amendment received a majority of the Senate’s support, the amendment was subject to the same 60-vote threshold ordinarily reserved for ending filibusters.

That paragraph – so much clearer for we readers to understand – comes not from a news outlet, but from a group called Fix the Senate Now.  (On its About Us page, the group says it was formed to support Senate Rules reform efforts championed by New Mexico’s Udall, among others).

The group outlined its reaction to the gun vote with its story, under the headline “Failure of Background Check Amendment Shows Need for Senate Reform”, stating:

. . .requiring 60 votes to pass an amendment on an issue upon which 9-in-10 Americans agree underscores the need for Senate reform. Today’s proceedings also run counter to the supposed goal of the Senate leaders’ compromise agreement:  to restore accountability and transparency to Senate debate. . . .

Today’s vote is another unfortunate reminder that the U.S. Senate’s rules remain unworkable and in serious need of reform. That policies supported by 86% of Americans cannot even receive an up-or-down vote speaks to an inherent disconnect between the public’s appetite for action and the capacity of our legislative institutions ability to deliver it.

Especially pertinent is this paragraph from the story, my emphasis added:

Senators intent on blocking popular policies such as expanded background checks should be forced to hold the floor and keep at least 40 of their colleagues on the floor with them. Instead, Senate rules and procedures made opposing Manchin-Toomey essentially costless and accountability-free.

The story then, isn’t that gun controls were defeated, but that the Senate majority has allowed itself to be hobbled, the minority is in control and, as a result, the Senate is failing to do its job.

From former House Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ eloquent piece in The New York Times:

Our democracy’s history is littered with names we neither remember nor celebrate — people who stood in the way of progress while protecting the powerful. On Wednesday, a number of senators voted to join that list.


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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Cheryl Everett

    If only ABQ had its own “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report.” Stewart and Colbert last night presented a searing satire of the mass media’s Boston bombing coverage. No wonder younger Americans rely on “Daily” and “Report” for their news.

  • theJdogg

    I’m a little confused. I thought both parties agreed to the 60-40 thing. Was that to avoid the filibuster, or were they just covering for their own inaction? It seems like a good way to keep the NRA status quo while looking they are doing something.

  • theJdogg

    See what I mean?

    “In rapid succession, a bipartisan compromise to expand background checks for gun buyers, a ban on assault weapons and a ban on high-capacity gun magazines all failed to get the 60 votes needed under an agreement between both parties. Senators also turned back Republican proposals to expand permission to carry concealed weapons and to focus law enforcement efforts on prosecuting gun crimes.”

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