Eric Alterman: Of Filibusters and “Stunts,” Then and Now

[Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.]

Remember the Gang of 14? The “obstructionist” Senate leader Tom Daschle? The demand for “up or down votes” by every right-thinker in Washington? Those were the days, huh, back when the Democratic minority refused to allow the machinery of our democracy to operate according to plan. Republicans and their allies in the media were so angry they came “this close” to eliminating the institution of the filibuster entirely.
Well, that was then. Today the tables are turned, and it’s the Republicans who are doing the filibustering. They’re doing so much of it that, at their present rate, they will have filibustered three times more than any Congress in the previous decade. Nearly one vote in six so far this year has been a filibuster vote. And these are hardly trivial issues. Republican filibusters have stopped bills to withdraw combat troops from Iraq—despite a 52-49 majority in favor of it—enact comprehensive immigration reform, address the Justice Department scandals, bolster labor rights, and, well the list goes on.

Reading and listening to the mainstream coverage of these filibusters, however, the casual citizen would have a hard time figuring out who’s responsible. As Matt Yglesias writes: “It seems, though, that the GOP has decided that if they use filibusters to obstruct congressional action that the press will keep reporting this in a ‘Congress fails to do X’ kind of way rather than a ‘GOP obstructionism’ kind of way, which makes filibusters a win-win for Republicans.”

This is, naturally, the same storyline the Republicans themselves have constructed. “We really ought to be asking why this Democrat leadership won’t allow Congress to move forward on serious policy debates,” complains Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ). “Americans have been disappointed by a majority leadership that stages one show debate after another, while the only consistent legislative work getting done is the renaming of post offices.”

That problem could easily be solved if Republicans allowed votes to take place and bills to be placed on the president’s desk. And yet, almost universally, the mainstream media has written this story as if dictated by the same folks who come up with Republicans’ talking points each morning.

Take, for instance, last week’s all-nighter on Iraq. It was designed to call attention to the Republicans’ filibustering tactics, but most reporters portrayed it as a Democratic “stunt” designed to detract from the real business of governance, as if this horrific war were none of Congress’s business. Few apparently remember that former Senate Majority Leader Bill First (R-TN) employed exactly the same tactic in the Bad Old Days merely to get a few of Bush’s judges confirmed. (Far fewer judicial nominations were held up under Bush II than under Clinton, by the way, but who’s counting?)

In the case of Fox News, we get pretty much what we’ve been trained to expect. The story was reported as follows: “By a 52-47 vote, the Senate on Wednesday rejected a bill that would have started bringing troops home within 120 days of passage.” Never mind that the 52 votes were actually in favor of the bill....

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