Political Animal


April 02, 2012 5:53 PM Language and the Filibuster

By Ed Kilgore

While I’m on the subject of the creeping appropriation of terms to mean something new, I’d draw attention to an article by The Atlantic by James Fallows which includes a reader email protesting the description of the blockage of a bill in the Senate that commanded a majority vote as a “defeat” for the bill by the Senate.

Your hear this sort of the thing all the time now, as though the rules of the Senate had been changed to define “majority” as meaning the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture. It’s invidious.

Even if this has become a de facto reality, there is a lot to be said for insisting on more precise language, such as “Senate passage of bill blocked by filibuster,” or at a minimum “bill fails to get 60 votes necessary for passage.” If we allow minorities to become majorities by sheer assertion, then such words have little real meaning any more.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Tramey on April 02, 2012 6:54 PM:

    Yes! Steam starts coming out of my ears every time I hear that construction. Since when did it become the norm that it takes 60 votes to constitutes a majority in the Senate?

    How does one persuade the media to properly report to the public at large that it's only because of Republican filibusters that nothing gets done in the Senate?

  • cmdicely on April 02, 2012 6:57 PM:

    It is a defeat for the bill by the Senate.

    Last I checked, the Constitution gives the Senate the power to set its own rules. The results of the rules it operates under, and the abuses of those rules that are tolerated, remain the responsibility of the whole Senate.

    If the majority of the Senate doesn't like the outcomes, then the majority needs to do something about the rules.

  • martin on April 02, 2012 7:07 PM:

    Tell it to "even Liberal" NPR. My hobby for the last several years has been to point this out to them. Every now and then they will actually change things for a day or two, but go right back to saying a bill was defeated.

    cmdicely: It is a failure of a cloture bill, not the bill in question. The news has an obligation to accurately report on what was voted on.

  • Citizen Alan on April 02, 2012 8:06 PM:

    Don't worry. This issue will last until the very day that we get a Republican Senate, at which point the same media prostitutes who presently claim that 60 votes are needed for all legislation will instantly conclude that the filibuster is an unconstitutional attack on democracy and will vehemently decry every use of it by the minority Dems.

  • Tony Greco on April 02, 2012 8:54 PM:

    I wrote a letter to the public editor of the NY Times about this roughly a year and a half ago, and he responded, practically conceding that he agreed with me, but then giving the news staff's rationale for using the misleading term "defeat" for a bill that had majority support in the Senate. But I did notice at least one subsequent occasion where the Times avoided the word "defeat" in this kind of case. So, I felt maybe I had made a small difference.

    We all should be alert to this and keep on pressing the media, as Martin has with TNR.

  • Ted Frier on April 02, 2012 9:59 PM:

    Don't look now but sheer bullying assertion is how the right wing gets a lot of what it wants. Pick up the Wall Street Journal (or any piece of conservative media/propaganda) and sit back and marvel at the legion of highly debatable right wing propositions that conservatives try to will into being true by saying it is true again, and again and again and daring anyone to face the furies by saying it ain't so.