When Senators Vote Against Voting (And Reporters Don’t Report It)

Richard Eskow

The New York Times got a key fact wrong today when it wrote that Mark Begich, the Democratic Senator from Alaska, “voted against a measure to expand background checks” for gun purchases.  But we doubt that Begich will complain: The truth is much worse.

Thanks to Begich and 45 other Senators, no vote ever took place on that “measure to expand background checks.” Instead, in yet another abuse of the Senate’s rules, the measure died after failing to win the 60 votes needed to overrule a filibuster.

The Constitution says that only 50 votes are needed in order to pass a law, and 54 Senators voted to bring the Manchin Amendment to a vote.  That almost certainly means they would have voted for the amendment itself.

They never got the chance.

Begich didn’t vote against this measure. He voted against allowing other Senators to vote on it.  So it failed, even though a majority of Senators supported it and it was overwhelmingly backed by voters.

A”filibuster” was once meant for exceptional circumstances, which is why Senators were once obliged to talk non-stop to support one. Now it’s a tool of convenience for occasions just like this, when a popular measure is up for a vote and Washington’s lobbyists are against it. Begich and his peers voted against giving his constituents, or any other Senator’s, a public record which might haunt them at re-election time. This has become a useful way for Senators to act against the public’s wishes without being held accountable.

By incorrectly reporting that Begich and his peers “voted against a measure” that was never brought to a vote, the Times isn’t merely failing the basic journalistic test of accuracy. It’s also whitewashing an abusive process. It’s making abnormal behavior seem normal, helping aberrant behavior slowly become the norm.

Editors at the Times and other news outlets might argue that, while this description of events is true, it makes these Senators’ actions sound more reprehensible. That argument needs to be reversed: It makes their actions sound more reprehensible because it’s true.

This isn’t nit-picking. Reporters have been carelessly using this kind of language as shorthand for a process they understand, but their readers don’t. And this kind of misreporting has significant policy implications. During the Dodd/Frank deliberations we saw how dramatically Senators’ votes can shift in favor of public opinion – and away from the corrupting sway of lobbyists – once they’re forced to publicly debate and vote on the issues.  We also saw how effectively filibusters and backroom deals can be used to shortchange the public interest on behalf of corporate lobbyists.

The ability to ‘vote against voting’ was used to kill the “public option,” a low-cost alternative to our current high-priced and low-quality system of private health insurance. Like background checks, this measure was supported by most voters – including 51 percent of Republicans. It also help stall amendments to the Dodd/Frank bill which would have broken up the big banks.

Since the Democrats regained the Senate, filibuster absue has skyrockted as Republicans try to thwart their majority. The Democrats have done little to restrain it. This subversion of the democratic process has become so commonplace that it’s rarely discussed nowadays. It’s not likely to be, either – not as long as our nation’s news outlets continue to whitewash the Senate’s actions.

The topic for today’s Times article was the weakness of President Obama’s leadership, using the Manchin Amendment as a case study.  We’ve had our share of complaints on that score, but this vote wasn’t one of them.  Ironically, the real weakness behind the background-check failure was illustrated more by the article than by its subject.

This kind of reporting leaves readers with the false impression that the business of democracy is being conducted in the Senate chamber, even on the many occasions when it isn’t. Senators will be free to exploit this system until the public pressures party leaders to change it. That’s not likely to happen as long as voters are incorrectly told that critical issues are being debated and voted upon when they aren’t.

Senators who are too cynical or too timid to do their jobs are increasingly using the “filibuster” rule as Get-Out-of-Democracy-Quick card. Our friends in the media need to keep reporting the facts, no matter how unflattering, regarding that increasingly sclerotic and unresponsive body known as the United States Senate.

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