Forget the filibuster — focus on people

Thomas Pynchon in his famous work, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” listed what he called “Proverbs for Paranoids.” Keep this one in mind: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

Here’s the wrong question the Beltway press keeps asking to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and others: Where are you on the filibuster?

Manchin’s answers have been all over, most prominently in a Washington Post op-ed in which he wrote that: “There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster. The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.”

(Here’s an interesting commentary on how Manchin does his other Senatorial work, or not.)

Sinema has expressed similar views, recently expressed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in which she said the Senate shouldn’t “erode the rules,” but instead Senators should “change their behavior.”

Enough already. The state of the filibuster is not the question reporters should be asking Manchin or Sinema or the others who express doubts about changing a dubious rule in the name of tradition.

The better question is: “Are you prepared to take responsibility for disenfranchising millions of voters?”

If the topic is the infrastructure bill, the question is, “How will you tell the Mayor of Charleston that you’re responsible for her bridge not being repaired?”

The emphasis of the question should be on the real-world result and the effect of the action (or non-action as the case may be).

Around Capitol Hill, there are a few places reporters can ask a Senator questions. There are spaces near elevators, a convenient hallway near where Senators have their Tuesday party lunches off of the Senate floor, or by the little trams that take them between the Capitol and the Senate office buildings.

However, those catch-as-catch-can opportunities aren’t the right place to ask the kind of question I had in mind. There are a bunch of reporters who each have their own questions, so there’s not likely the chance for a follow-up. And Senators are usually on their way from one place to another, so they keep their answers short and then hurry off.

Granted, it has been a while since I covered Congress and there may be a few minor differences between then and now, but it’s very unlikely the basic nature of reporters and politicians has changed. Even when a committee chairman once jumped into a tram car with me to tell me something, the conversation only lasted a couple of minutes.

These impromptu press availabilities are good for one type of question — the process question. It’s much easier to ask and get an answer of some kind.

“When is this bill coming to the floor?”

“Will you vote for Senator X’s amendment?”

“How many votes does Sen. Y’s bill have?”

These are the questions that are more naturally asked and answered because everyone involved speaks the same language on the same thought patterns. Reporters who cover the Hill and adjacent beats are steeped in process. They (the former me) want to know what will happen when. It can really get into the weeds, such asking about a closed rule or an open rule on the House floor. (A closed rule allows only selected amendments. An open rule is a free-for-all, and is all but extinct, but you get the idea.) One admires deft legislative maneuvering much as one admires a clever play in a football game.

Reporters who cover legislative politics are steeped in the old aphorisms — those who control process control the policy. Those who control the agenda control the outcome. That view of the world, and of their job, leads to the kinds of really inside baseball questions that they think make good stories for some of their readers and viewers.

Press critics like to point out the preponderance of process-related questions, not only on the Hill, but at the White House as well. That’s why of all the questions to ask President Biden at his so far only press conference, a Washington Post reporter asked this: “Thank you, Mr. President, to follow up on the filibuster: So do you believe it should take 60 votes to end a filibuster on legislation or 51?”

Aside from being a dumb question, one which Biden smoothly dismissed, it showed the process mindset at the highest level of the trade. The questions show the reporter has grasped the nature of the process, a sign of respect.

What gets lost in this little bubble world is the real-world impact of a politician’s actions. To ask the real question of Manchin or Sinema, you would need an interview, like a Sunday Morning Talk Show, complete with a semi-competent Sunday Morning Talk Show Host (SMTSH).

Sitting down with a Manchin, whether virtually now, or in person at some point, the SMTSH will ask: “Are you prepared to take responsibility for disenfranchising millions of voters, because that’s what will happen if S. 1 doesn’t pass?”

He will attempt the dodge, saying, “That’s not going to happen.” In a press availability in the hallway, that might be the end of the conversation, but on a SMTS, the SMTSH can follow up: “Why not? After all, Republicans in 47 states have introduced, as of March 24, 361 bills with restrictive voting provisions. Some have been passed. What happens if the Senate doesn’t pass legislation to prevent voter suppression?”

The SMTS guest, a Manchin or Sinema, might continue to try to evade the issue by saying not all will pass, to which the host should reply: “So it’s all right with you if voters in some states get disenfranchised but not in others?” That question is ripe for Sinema because Arizona is one of those states.

These examples would work just as well on a local interview show or an interview with a local paper where there is time for follow up and discussion. The politician may not change his or her mind, but the point is to make them realize publicly what the consequences of their blocking crucial legislation are very real. And we didn’t mention the word “filibuster” once.

Senator Joe in all of his glory

Communications consultant, recovering journalist

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