Senate Rules and the English Language: Mortal Enemies

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 22 2013 9:45 AM

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.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

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.

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

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.