Orwell, Guns and Filibusters

Timothy Lavin writes editorials on politics, economics, taxation and defense for Bloomberg View. He was a senior editor at the Atlantic.
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George Orwell illuminated something important about how bad policy can be both the cause and the effect of sloppy writing. Language, he wrote, "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

I bring this up apropos of the gun-control plan the Senate has been considering. You might think, reading this morning's news, that the Senate had voted on this plan and then "defeated" or "rejected" it. The Hill, for instance,wrote: "It failed by a vote of 54 to 46, with five Democrats voting against it. Only four Republicans supported it." Reading that, you wouldn't suspect that 54 senators actually supported passing the measure in question, which they did. Or that the proposal was actually blocked by a filibuster.

I don't mean to pick on the Hill; this is the standard shorthand in the political press for describing how a minority in the Senate now habitually blocks legislation that has majority support. (This chart of cloture motions gives you some indication of the historical anomalousness of this situation.)

As James Fallows at the Atlantic has tirelessly demonstrated, the press is implicated in how the Senate has as a result been transformed from the majority-vote body envisioned in the Constitution into one that requires a three-fifths supermajority to conduct general business. His point is worth repeating: When a measure is blocked by the threat of a filibuster, it isn't "defeated" -- and saying so reinforces the public perception that a 60-vote threshold is the senatorial norm. It isn't.

Such semantics matter. One of Orwell's insights was that this process is self-perpetuating. "An effect can become a cause," he wrote, "reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks."

Filibuster abuse -- which, I hasten to add, is a bipartisan enthusiasm -- has become such a successful tactic in part because of a capitulation of language. We should resist. Otherwise, we're making it easier for the legislature to have foolish thoughts.

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To contact the author on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net