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Saturday, November 23, 2013

The American Media Goes “Nuclear” on the U.S. Senate's Filibuster

Is ending the filibuster on appointments to executive-branch offices as well as judicial appointments below the U.S. Supreme Court really “the nuclear option”? Is this expression simply rhetoric gone horribly over the top? Journalists would undoubtedly demur, at least publically, yet without feeling an ounce of shame.
On November 22, 2013, a leading story on the front page of USA Today immediately snagged my fleeting attention with the headline, “’Nuclear’ volleys across aisle signal a Cold War in Congress.”[1] The 52-48 vote in the U.S. Senate on the previous day was neither a “nuclear volley” nor the beginning of a “cold war.” Rather, the reform was yet another legislative device having to do with reducing the gridlock within the chamber and perhaps for a party to gain more control therein. The political tussles between the two major parties had already been going on, so the latest reform could not have been the start of a war, cold or hot.
To be sure, editors look for headlines to be attention-grabbers, and thus sensationalistic—yet even if the claim is false or even misleading? Signaling a cold war flies in the face of the prior existence of such a “war,” as during the U.S. Government’s partial shutdown when raising the government’s debt-ceiling was in jeopardy. Moreover, the reporter continues the sensationalism within the article.
For example, the reporter invokes “the superpower theory of Mutually Assured Destruction—that is, if you use the most powerful weapon against your enemy, your enemy will use it against you—neither side had ever deployed it.”[2] Does not this “theory” apply more to shutting down the government or refusing to raise the debt-limit? The fact that Americans waked up on November 22nd with a functional federal government belies the journalist’s application of the theory to whether the U.S. Senate would confirm more appellate and district judges. Nevertheless, the reporter “reports” that “Democrats voted for detonation.”[3]  I didn’t hear any sort of blast, or for that matter, see any damage the next day.
As for any realistic (i.e., still incremental rather than radical) consequences, the reporter provides merely a quote at the end of the article. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said, “The silver lining is that there will come a day when the roles are reversed. When that happens, our side will likely nominate and confirm lower court and Supreme Court nominees with 51 votes.”[4] As if as an afterthought, the reporter tacked on this quote, which says basically that the Senate would continue to delimit the filibuster’s domain. Crucially, incrementalism is not radicalism. Hence, the war rhetoric is misleading at best, and it displaces reportage on the real significance of the vote.




1. Susan Page, ““’Nuclear’ volleys across aisle signal a Cold War in Congress,” USA Today, November 22, 2013.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., emphasis added.