Senate Rules and the English Language: Mortal Enemies

Norm Ornstein uses the defeat of the Toomey-Manchin amendment to make his favorite excruciating argument: Congress is broken, broken, broken.

A majority, 54 of the 100 senators, voted in favor of a bipartisan, restrained and reasonable plan to prevent dangerous individuals from having easy access to guns.

Wait a minute, you say — it was rejected! And of course, you are right. Under the combination of Senate rules and leadership agreements, the provision required 60 votes, not a simple majority.

For once it wasn’t the filibuster that killed the bill; it was a Senate rule that required 60 votes to replace the gun bill as written with this amendment. (That was a mitzvah for Democrats. The NRA announced that it would key-vote cloture on the motion to proceed to a vote. Harry Reid pulled the bill, making it possible to bring it up again, temporarily preventing a filibuster.) And the national media’s getting pretty good at distinguishing when a majority of senators are thwarted by procedure.

Fox News:

The vote was 54-46, with supporters falling six votes short of the required 60-vote threshold. 

National Review:

Ultimately, the Toomey-Manchin amendment failed by a 54–46 vote, falling short of the 60-vote threshold needed to stop a filibuster.

Still, though, the English language isn’t well equipped to offer a quick description of how “most people support bill” means “bill goes down in flames.” The Patriot-News, in Toomey’s home state, reports that “a procedural 54-46 vote killed the amendment.” Lots of papers using AP stories applied headlines like “Manchin-Toomey Bill Voted Down 54-46.” If your bowling league consists of 20 people, and 11 of you vote for a new shirt design complete with lightning bolts and flaming swords, it wouldn’t be “voted down.” The Senate works differently! But how many people paying loose attention to politics grok that?