What happens when these changes are routinized in press coverage? The article itself offers an example. The passage cited above notes that 44 senators have vowed to oppose any nominee unless major changes are made to the CFPB. The Senate, of course, has 100 members, so blanket opposition is a minority position—except that, as the filibuster has become standard operating procedure, 60 votes are now required to do anything in the Senate.
This procedural change, which is itself fairly recent, is essential to understanding why Cordray’s nomination is poised to fail—and yet, it goes undiscussed in the Politico article. Through repeated use, a procedural tactic that will allow a congressional minority to derail an executive-branch appointment has become so taken for granted that it doesn’t merit a passing mention.
Politico, of course, is written for insiders and politics junkies, so there’s a plausible argument that its readers don’t need tutorials on the expansion of the filibuster, or the history of executive-branch appointments, in the way that readers of more mass-market publications might. And I don’t mean to suggest that, by noting these changes more dutifully, the press might prevent them—or, for that matter, that preventing them is the press’s responsibility.
But at the same time, failing to explore what’s happening—or reserving those explorations for big take-out essays, rather than threading them into day-to-day reporting—amounts to putting blinders on much coverage of politics. Writing about the Cordray case, the blogger Ron Replogle sketched out what happens when one side breaks with protocol in pursuit of a short-term victory:
It leaves the other side with the unenviable choice of letting itself be taken advantage of, renouncing the same norm itself in retaliation or violating some other relevant norm as a way of securing compensation for the other side’s misconduct (e.g., a president’s disregarding the norms governing recess appointments in response to a minority party’s unwillingness to allow a vote on one of his nominees).
That makes it perfectly rational, and not civically irresponsible, for political actors to adopt a strategy of “tit for tat” in the game of politics, doing in their next move something analogous to what the other side did on its last move. When both sides respond rationally to a transgression on the part of one side or the other, however, they invite retaliation that tears the fabric of benign mutual expectations that sustains a Madisonian political system. That’s how we end up with the kind of political dysfunction we’re seeing in connection with raising the debt ceiling.
The escalation of procedural partisanship is at the center of D.C. politics right now. But that escalation is incremental and persistent, while press attention to it is often scattershot: a pattern of neglect, followed by a burst of attention, then more neglect. Political coverage would be better—more comprehensive, more accurate, more insightful—if that escalation got the coverage it deserved.