News Media Fudge Unemployment Aid Filibuster

Why Is it so Hard to Report on a Vote?

Yesterday, Senate Republicans killed the unemployment insurance extension bill by filibuster. But you wouldn't know that if you read the generally bad news coverage.

Take this story in the New York Times.

WASHINGTON — Unemployment benefits for 1.3 million of the long-term unemployed — and millions more in the future — were imperiled on Tuesday after Senate efforts to reach accord on legislation to revive them collapsed in partisan finger-pointing.

"Partisan finger-pointing"? That tells us nothing. It certainly doesn't tell us that most Republicans simply opposed any extension, and mounted a filibuster to defeat it. Continuing:

After days of negotiations, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, abruptly called a vote to end debate on two Democratic measures that would extend benefits for out-of-work Americans for at least three months, gambling that he could muster enough support from moderate Republicans to move on to final passage for at least one of the proposals.

The same problem, here; what's missing is that the negotiations were only with those moderate Republicans. Even more to the point: the "vote to end debate" should more properly be described as a vote to defeat the filibuster. While in one sense cloture votes -- what Reid called for -- do bring debate to a close, that's an insufficient description, since there are other types of votes that would end debate. This particular kind of vote has one major purpose: to end filibusters. I understand that the Times doesn't want to use technical parliamentary language, and rightly so, but "vote to end debate" doesn't correctly convey what happened.

Skipping two paragraphs, we get to the worst of it:

The first vote failed, 52 to 48, on a measure proposed by the Democratic leadership that would have extended benefits for 11 months. The extension would have been largely financed by continuing a 2 percent cut to Medicare health providers for an additional year, through 2024. The second vote, on the original bill, which would have extended benefits for three months at a cost of $6.4 billion, failed 55 to 45.

Awful. There's absolutely no way that a reader could know at this point that 52 Senators voted for the first motion, and 55 voted for the second. Any normal reader would assume the opposite -- that a majority had defeated both motions. Nowhere to this point in the story has the Times informed readers that a minority blocked the majority. Skipping another paragraph:

Republicans had balked during negotiations at what they viewed as the tyrannical leadership of Mr. Reid, who had refused to let them offer any amendments to unemployment measures. On Tuesday, Mr. Reid offered to let each party introduce five amendments.

This is mostly fine; a big part of this story, and of the continuing filibuster story in general, is about how Harry Reid hasn't been allowing Republicans to offer amendments (and, from the Democrats' point of view, how Republicans have abused the amendment process). We could use more information here: for example, were the amendments Republicans wanted germane? It's still worth noting that the negotiations cited here were only among a small group of moderates. Most Republicans were simply filibustering, nothing more.

But Republicans remained dissatisfied. They said that his requirement that each amendment receive 60 votes to pass doomed their measures, especially since Mr. Reid was demanding that Republicans give up the customary 60-vote threshold to end debate on the final bill and agree to a simple majority vote.

"Customary 60-vote threshold"??? Again, awful. Yes, over the past five years it has become "customary" for Republicans to filibuster everything, and yes, this "custom" of filibustering major legislation goes back to 1993. But that's a ridiculous way to refer to what is -- recent "custom" or not -- a filibuster.

We finally get the word "filibuster" in the 12th paragraph, but only from a Harry Reid quote in which he accuses Republicans of filibustering, which is paired with a Mitch McConnell quote complaining about the procedures Reid is using. The Times rightly includes the arguments of both sides. But there are also facts to report here, the most salient of which is that Republicans defeated the bill by . . . filibuster.

The Times coverage, unfortunately, was typical. The Washington Post similarly called the whole thing a "deadlock" and a partisan squabble, with the only mention of a filibuster in the final paragraph, citing Republicans demanding their "right to filibuster" -- without any hint that they had just exercised that right. Politico used vote count language similar to what the Times went with, making it impossible for readers to know which side had a majority of votes. Bloomberg employed similar language, with no explicit mention that 55 Senators voted to break a filibuster, and the minority prevailed.

On the very first level, readers should know, in a 55-45 vote, which side received 55 and which got 45, no? On a slightly more advanced level, readers should know if bills are defeated by filibuster or simply defeated. On a more advanced level? Reporting should not only let readers know what each side is claiming, but help readers sort through the claims and whether they are supported by facts. After reading today's stories, I have no way of evaluating whether the Senate majority acted reasonably or not. All I learned was that Reid offered Republicans a small number of amendments in exchange for getting to a final vote on the bill. It's not clear why he did so or if Reid violated Senate tradition by dramatically restricting amendments. These stories don't come close to giving us the information we need to reach our own conclusions.We're in the fifth year of Filibuster Everything. It's time for reporters to catch up.

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