For an example of how institutional norms can twist language in the most Orwellian ways, just check out this New York Times story on the political implications of Sen. Robert Byrd's passing, "Death of Byrd Weakens Democrats’ Frail Majority." But the Democrats' majority only counts as frail if you consider a "majority" 60 votes as the article does. In fact, the 58 Democrats in the Senate constitute a strong majority relative to many other Congresses since the passage of the 17th Amendment.
However, we've established an institutional norm whereby you need 60 votes to get a bill passed. It's a new phenomenon, as this well-worth-your-time Brookings paper points out, noting that "the evidence seems to confirm the majority party complaint that they faced record levels of obstructionism ... [and] certainly supports the claim that the Senate has reached a new plateau in the exploitation of procedural prerogatives."
To be clear: 60 votes is a supermajority, and requiring a supermajority for most important pieces of legislation is not only novel, it's pernicious. Recognizing it as such is key to reforming it, but if journalists accept this new Orwellian definition of "majority," the necessary attention won't be paid. That a story about how 58 Senators are unable to exercise their majority can blithely pass by the basic math of democracy is a bit preposterous.
On the other hand, here's a Norm who ought to be institutionalized in Washington.
-- Tim Fernholz
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