THURSDAY, APRIL 8, 2021
A journalistic conundrum: At the start of this week, the Senate parliamentarian, by all accounts, made a very significant ruling.
The ruling concerns the legislative procedure commonly known as "reconciliation." How important is this ruling believed to be?
The ruling is believed to be very important! But can anyone in the upper-end press explain what the ruling was?
Can anyone explain what the parliamentarian said? The answer seems to be no.
For today, we'll look at the first attempt by the New York Times to explain this important new ruling. We direct you to Emily Cochrane's news report in Tuesday's print editions.
This was the New York Times' first attempt to explain what the parliamentarian had ruled. Was Cochrane able to handle that task? Hard-copy headline included, her news report started like this:
COCHRANE (4/6/21): Democrats Win Key Tool For Enacting Biden Plans
A top Senate official ruled on Monday that Democrats could use the fast-track budget reconciliation process for a second time this fiscal year, potentially handing them broader power to push through President Biden’s agenda, including his infrastructure plan, over Republican opposition.
The decision by the parliamentarian means that Democrats can essentially reopen the budget plan they passed in February and add directives to enact the infrastructure package or other initiatives, shielding them from a filibuster that requires 60 votes to overcome.
It came as Democratic leaders were contemplating how to use their slim majorities in the House and Senate to enact Mr. Biden’s infrastructure proposals, including a huge public-works plan he released last week and a second initiative to be released in the coming months to address economic inequities, provide paid leave to workers and support child care.
But the decision has potential significance beyond those plans, and even the current Congress. The guidance could substantially weaken the filibuster by allowing the majority party to use budget reconciliation—a powerful tool that allows measures related to taxes and spending to pass on a majority vote—multiple times in a single fiscal year. That would dilute the power of the minority to stall or block such legislation in the Senate, the latest bid by the party in power to chip away at the arcane filibuster rules.
That's the way Cochrane started. Let's summarize what's been said:
According to Cochrane's report, "budget reconciliation" is a powerful tool which "allows measures related to taxes and spending to pass on a majority vote."
As Cochrane notes, other measures can be filibustered in the Senate. Essentially, this means that they require 60 votes (out of 100) to be enacted into law. Under "budget reconciliation," a measure can pass into law with just a simple majority in the Senate—with just 51 votes.
That's the easy part. Now, we ask you to try to discern, from Cochrane's account, what the parliamentarian has ruled.
Cochrane starts by saying this, right in paragraph one:
According to the ruling, Senate Democrats can use the reconciliation process "for a second time this fiscal year." She never explains why a parliamentarian's ruling was needed to let them do this.
Beyond that, she rather clearly seems to say that the Democrats' first use of reconciliation occurred in "the budget plan [the Democrats] passed in February." But as she continues, she proceeds to say this:
COCHRANE (continuing directly): It was not clear how Democrats would use their newfound power, or for what. But the preliminary guidance from Elizabeth MacDonough, the parliamentarian, most likely gives them additional opportunities to push elements of Mr. Biden’s agenda through the 50-to-50 Senate without abolishing the filibuster or watering down their proposals to win at least 10 Republican votes.
Democrats had already used budget reconciliation to push through Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus last month without any Republican votes. But with some Democrats reluctant to dismantle the filibuster, the rest of Mr. Biden’s agenda risks stalling amid Republican objections.
Uh-oh! Now we're told that Democrats "already used budget reconciliation to push through Mr. Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus last month." This rather clearly seems to suggest that Senate Democrats have already used reconciliation twice this year—first for "the budget plan they passed in February," then again for the "$1.9 trillion stimulus [they passed] last month" (in March).
Confusion lurks elsewhere as well. In her opening paragraph, Cochrane says the parliamentarian's ruling means that Senate Democrats can use reconciliation process "for a second time this year." That would seem to suggest that they can use the procedure two times in all.
But in paragraph 4, she seems to say that the ruling means that the Dems can use reconciliation "multiple times" this year. Does that mean they could use the procedure more than twice? Go ahead! Try to figure that out!
Can Democrats use the procedure twice, or can they use it more than twice? Haven't they already used it twice—in February for the budget bill, then again in March for the $1.9 trillion Covid/stimulus package?
We're sorry, but we find Cochrane's explanation to be less clear than mud. And yet, this is the work of the New York Times, the smartest newspaper in Our Town—and here in Our Town, we constantly say that we're just extremely smart.
(For the record: In our view, the confusion only grows as Cochrane's report continues past these first six paragraphs.)
Cochrane is three years out of college (University of Florida, class of 2017). In our view, this makes her very young, as these things go—but her editor is surely older, and the lack of clarity in this report is quite typical of the work one finds in the New York Times.
In fairness to Cochrane, Rachel Maddow spent 25 minutes on Monday night, clowning and mincing as she pretended to explain this same ruling. Cochrane's report is a model of clarity compared to Maddow's string of self-contradictions, a ball of confusion buried inside an insipid entertainment / self-promotion package.
Maddow's performance was her latest ridiculous disgrace. Cochrane has simply presented work which is quite hard to decipher.
Can anybody here play this game? That's what Casey Stengel once asked about the hapless New York Mets.
Quite often, that same question comes to mind as we peruse the work of our upper-end press corps. Many have gone to the finest schools, but it doesn't much seem to have helped.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we are in a boatload of trouble here in our floundering town. Anthropologists say this is likely the best that creatures like us can do.
(More on this topic to come.)