I don't usually engage in too much back-and-forth blogging, since this rarely results in more light than heat. However, my Saturday post responding to James Fallows was so badly misconstrued in comments that I obviously expressed myself poorly. Let me take another crack at it.

Fallows was annoyed at a Washington Post story about the defeat of Obama's jobs bill which (a) implied that No votes from two Democrats were somehow more important than unanimous opposition from Republicans, (b) didn't mention that the bill was filibustered, (c) treated a cloture vote as if it was a vote on the bill itself, and (d) rather laughably suggested that the two Democratic No votes had somehow given cover to Republicans who might otherwise have voted Yes.

I'm on board with all of these items except for (c). The current reality of American politics is that cloture votes are, for all practical purposes, not mere "procedural votes," they're votes on the bill itself. The current reality is that bills require 60 votes to pass the Senate. But in comments to the original post, Fallows says this:

The more important point, which I tried to stress, is that nowhere in the WaPo piece did the writer explain why a bill would "fail" with 51 Yes votes, how it had happened that 60 votes were required, that this was a filibuster-threat, or that we were dealing with a historically new situation. Yes, reporters should reflect the reality of a changed situation. But they should mention that it has changed, as this story did not.

This is a legitimate complaint, and it's one I've made a number of times myself. But now I think we should go further. Unfortunately, I prefaced my disagreement with Fallows by saying "I'm on the Post's side." This led a whole bunch of people to think that I was pulling some kind of "reasonableness" schtick and suggesting that Fallows was being a little too radical. That's exactly the opposite of what I intended.

So let me try again. What Fallows is suggesting is that the Post story should have explained that the bill was filibustered, it should have explained that this was why it failed with 51 votes, and it should have explained that routine use of the filibuster is a historic anomaly instituted by Republicans a few years ago. And that's fine. But it's no longer enough.

These aren't filibusters in the heroic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sense, which is how most people react to the word. So rather than tediously explaining the evolution of the filibuster in every story, something that probably isn't really practical anyway, I think the American news audience simply needs to be repeatedly exposed to the plain fact that the Senate is now a 60-vote body. Maybe then they'll start wondering why.

So: Cloture votes should be treated as if they were votes on the bill itself because, in practice, they usually are. And news stories should explain that nowadays it takes 60 votes to pass a bill. This doesn't require a longwinded explanation in every story about a Senate vote, it just requires a short and simple statement.

Whether you agree or disagree, this is, I think, more extreme than Fallows's position. It's time to stop pretending that each vote is some kind of historical aberration. News consumers simply need to be exposed, over and over, to the simple reality that the Senate is now a 60-vote body. Maybe this will get them fired up, maybe it won't. But it's more accurate than the current practice and, I think, more accurate and more practical than Fallows's suggestion.

Sunday Tech Talk

I have three questions for the hive mind:

  1. What's the best service out there for syncing up folders? DropBox? SugarSync? Or, since I'm a Windows-only user and only have a few gigabytes of stuff that I care about, should I just use Microsoft's free service? Are there nonobvious pitfalls to watch out for?
  2. What's the best travel site these days? I'm embarrassed to admit that I still creak along with Expedia. What things do other sites do better?
  3. For all you Gmail users: what client do you use? Does everyone just use Gmail's web client, or is there something better out there?

And finally, a tech success story, just because they seem so rare these days. A couple of weeks ago the power went out here, and when it came back up my email database had been corrupted. After diddling around a bit I gave up and figured I'd take another run at it later in the day. But when I got back from lunch, there was an alert on my computer telling me that my RAID drive had finished repairing itself. Sure enough, I rebooted and everything was fine. So the extra few dollars I spent getting a RAID array when I bought my new box a couple of years ago actually paid off. And it worked completely automatically in the background, just like it's supposed to. I guess it says something about modern computing that I'm a little shocked at this.

James Fallows is once again unhappy over the media's reporting of Senate dysfunction. Today's target is a story (and a headline) about the recent jobs bill that, instead of focusing on the fact that all 47 Republicans voted against it, focuses on the fact that a grand total of two (2) Democrats voted against it. There's unquestionably a fairy tale quality to the piece, especially its fantastical suggestion that those Democratic defections somehow gave cover to wavering Republicans who were unsure how they were going to vote. That's just laughable. However, Fallows also registers this complaint about the story:

It reflects so thorough an absorption of the idea that the filibuster-threat is normal business that it describes the latest cloture vote as a vote on the bill itself: "Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), who are both up for reelection next year, took to the Senate floor and delivered a sizeable blow to the bill's prospects by voting against it." No, they voted against the cloture measure, which they knew had zero chance of getting the necessary 60 votes.

Here, I'm on the Post's side. Like it or not, the reality of congressional politics has changed. The Senate is now a 60-vote body, and it's the vote on a cloture motion that's the important vote. For all practical purposes, the cloture vote is the vote on the bill. So my complaint would be just the opposite of Fallows's. Instead of insisting on a Schoolhouse Rock version of reporting, I'd prefer it if the media routinely reported on the actual reality of legislation today. If you want to report accurately, you should (a) report the cloture vote as a vote on the bill itself, (b) you should make clear that 60 votes are required to pass a bill, and (c) you should report the partisan breakdown of the voting — something that used to be routine but now only occasionally appears in reports of legislative activity.

Bottom line: The real-life practice of politics in America has changed over the past decade. Reporting should change along with it.

I have no real excuse for posting this picture. But it's pretty, isn't it, and that's excuse enough. Besides, maybe it will help to relieve the stench of the post just below.

From Rush Limbaugh, shortly after his berserk hatred of Barack Obama led him to publicly accuse the president of sending troops to Uganda to "wipe out Christians":

Is that right? The Lord's Resistance Army is being accused of really bad stuff? Child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff? Well, we just found out about this today. We're gonna do, of course, our due diligence research on it. But nevertheless we got a hundred troops being sent over there to fight these guys — and they claim to be Christians.

Due diligence? A quick scan of Wikipedia would have been plenty. The character of the LRA is not exactly a state secret. In fact, it's so not a state secret that the Bush administration declared them a terrorist organization in 2001 and the hyperpartisan 111th Congress passed the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act unanimously last year. That is, unanimously in both houses. Every single Democrat and every single Republican, moderates and tea partiers alike, supported it in both the House and the Senate. Every single one. Jesus.

Yesterday the Obama administration finally abandoned the CLASS Act, a program to subsidize long-term elderly care that was part of the healthcare reform bill. Conservatives are in full war whoop mode over this, and I suppose I don't blame them. The budget forecasts for CLASS were always dodgy, and conservative concerns about this have now been vindicated.

But they should contain themselves anyway. What happened here is that government worked exactly the way it ought to. The CLASS Act was passed in a fog of rosy estimates and emotional appeals (it was one of Ted Kennedy's longstanding priorities), and the Department of Health and Human Services immediately began the detailed work of writing the implementing regulations to get it up and running. And guess what? They did their work honestly and conscientiously. Even though it was a liberal program promoted by a longtime liberal icon, HHS analysts eventually concluded that its conservative critics were right and the program as passed was flawed. So they killed it. And most of the liberal healthcare wonks that I read seem to agree that, unfortunately, HHS was right.

This is how we all want government to work. And it turns out that Obama agrees. This is apparently how he wants government to work too, and it's a pretty clear demonstration that Obama isn't the kind of hyperpartisan extreme lefty that conservatives like to paint him as. He's a guy who wants government to function well and honestly, and if it doesn't, he's willing to shut down a program that doesn't work even though it upsets his own party and provides campaign fodder to his opponents. When was the last time a Republican president did anything like that?

Inkblot has been monopolizing cat blogging lately, so this week is Domino's turn. Today, she expresses her level of excitement over Inkblot's run for the presidency. She's pretty unimpressed, and this might be having an effect: Inkblot's swagger seems to be going the way of Rick Perry's. He usually makes a mad dash for the food bowl when dinner time rolls around and gets first crack at the kibble through sheer momentum. But this week he's been…a little more hesitant. And Domino has actually eaten first a couple of times. Is he losing his edge? Or just afraid that oppo researchers will tar him as greedy and selfish if they get video of his usual performance?

Hard to say. And Domino doesn't care. We're getting our last warm spell of the season around here, and right now that's all that's on her mind. Enjoy the weekend, everyone.

A public service announcement from the DC-based blogging community:

This is indeed true, but on the other hand, actual usable deposits of rare earths aren't super common either. More here in the Brad Plumer post that Ezra links above.

Far more fascinating, though, is that not one, not two, not three, but four rare earth elements are named in various fashion after the tiny Swedish village of Ytterby. Even famous scientists and Greek gods don't have so many elements named after them. More here. Local weather in Ytterby is here. It looks like it's starting to get chilly there.

When President Obama released his jobs bill a few weeks ago, Moody's analyzed it and concluded that it would boost GDP and help employment. So what do they think about the Republican jobs plan released yesterday? Greg Sargent picks up the phone and asks:

“I don’t have enough detail to evaluate how many jobs this would create,” Gus Faucher, the director of macroeconomics at Moody’s Analytics, told me. “I could say, `My plan is to do nothing, and it will create five million jobs.’ And it could work, particularly if I don’t say over what time period.”

....“Should we look at regulations and make sure they make sense from a cost benefit standpoint? Certainly. Should we reduce the budget deficit over the long run? Certainly,” Faucher said. “But in the short term, demand is weak, businesses aren’t hiring, and consumers aren’t spending. That’s the cause of the current weakness — and Republican Senate proposals aren’t going to address that in the short term.”

It's yet more government via slogans, a favorite of the GOP these days. They release an endless stream of white papers and bulleted PowerPoints, but none of them ever have enough actual detail to be scored by either the CBO or private analysts.

Why? Because they know perfectly well what the score would be if they included all the details: zero. Or maybe worse. As always, it's better to stick to slogans, which sound plausible and will get reported on the evening news regardless of what a bunch of wonky economists think, than to let the wonky economists actually speak up and ruin things.

Why They Filibuster

James Fallows continues to be gloomy about both the state of American democracy and the ability of the American media to describe it:

Main problem: the decision by Mitch McConnell's GOP Senate minority, once they lost their majority status in the 2006 elections, to filibuster nearly every item of public business....De facto, the Constitution has been amended to change the Senate from a majority-rule body to one requiring a 60-vote "supermajority."

....'Enabler' problem: The reluctance of the mainstream media to call this what it is, and instead to talk about "partisanship" and "logjam" and "dysfunction."....We had illustrations in the past few days from the NYT and, in jaw-dropping fashion, yesterday from the WaPo. And earlier this morning I was listening to a political "analysis" show on the radio that was all about this sad modern predicament of Congressional gridlock. The word "filibuster" was not used in that hour, unless it was during the minute I was plunging my head into the toilet tank in despair.

I don't feel like slitting my wrists today, so I'll just make a couple of related notes. First, keep in mind that dysfunction really is the goal here. Republicans filibuster even measures they support, and they do it solely to suck up calendar time. In these cases, the goal isn't to defeat legislation, it's explicitly to make sure that the Senate simply can't conduct very much business.

Second, it might seem odd that Senate Republicans are keeping this up. After all, the House is in GOP hands these days, so they don't really need to filibuster legislation anymore. If they wanted to, they could just shrug, let the Democrats pass whatever they want, and then let it all pile up and die in the House. But they don't. They don't even want to allow Dems a vote on legislation. Why?

Well, partly it's because the Senate is still solely responsible for confirming presidential nominations, and tying up the Senate calendar on procedural votes helps prevent a lot of nominees from being confirmed. But mainly it's because of how the press treats this. If the Senate holds only a cloture vote, and it fails, the press doesn't report it as a vote on the bill itself. It's a "procedural motion" or some such. This means Democrats don't get any public credit for voting Yes on a popular bill and Republicans don't get any public blame for voting No.

So how should the press handle this? In practice, cloture votes are now votes on bills. So maybe the press should simply report them that way. But they won't, because that's not quite accurate. Besides, it would also require headlines like "Bill Fails, 56-44." That would be accurate, but it seems sort of ridiculous and I imagine that copy desks don't like it. So the American public is shielded from just how ridiculous it is. Basically, the pathologies of the American press work entirely in the GOP's favor on this particular topic, and they take full advantage of it.