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Everything David Brooks says about reconciliation is wrong

Jon Chait did a very funny job taking apart David Brooks's column on reconciliation. I want to do a serious job on it. The factual statements Brooks uses in his argument are wrong. Not arguable, or questionable, or suspicious. Wrong. And since everything else flows from those wrong facts, the rest of the column can't be taken seriously.

"Reconciliation has been used with increasing frequency," writes Brooks. "That was bad enough. But at least for the Bush tax cuts or the prescription drug bill, there was significant bipartisan support." The outcome of letting reconciliation go from rare and bipartisan to common and partisan is that we will go from a Senate where "people are usually pretty decent to one another" to a Senate that "bleaches out normal behavior and the normal instincts of human sympathy."

Chilling stuff, huh?

But none of Brooks's evidence is true. Literally none of it. The budget reconciliation process was used six times between 1980 and 1989. It was used four times between 1990 and 1999. It was used five times between 2000 and 2009. And it has been used zero times since 2010. Peak reconciliation use, in other words, was in the '80s, not the Aughts. The data aren't hard to find. They were published on Brooks's own op-ed page.

Nor has reconciliation been limited to bills with "significant bipartisan support." To use Brooks's example of the tax cuts, the 2003 tax cuts passed the Senate 50-50, with Dick Cheney casting the tie-breaking vote. Two Democrats joined with the Republicans in that effort. Georgia's Zell Miller, who would endorse George W. Bush in 2004 and effectively leave the Democratic Party, and Nebraska's Ben Nelson. So I'd say that's one Democrat. One Democrat alongside 49 Republicans. That's not significant bipartisan support.

Another example: In 1993, Bill Clinton passed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. The final tally was, again, a tie broken by the vice president. In this case, not a single Republican voted for the bill.

As for the prescription drug benefit? The prescription drug benefit didn't go through reconciliation. It was passed through the normal order. Brooks is simply wrong on this.

To recap, Brooks argued that reconciliation is being used more frequently, and that past reconciliation bills, like Bush's tax cuts and prescription drug benefit, were significantly bipartisan. Reconciliation is, in fact, being used less frequently, past reconciliation bills like the tax cuts were not significantly bipartisan by any stretch of the imagination, and the prescription drug benefit did not go through reconciliation. Brooks isn't wrong in the sense that "I disagree with him." He's wrong in the sense that the column requires a correction.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 16, 2010; 11:27 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Poor New York Times. They can't even afford a fact-checker. Because Brooks obviously needs one.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 16, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Nicely done! More of this, please. And less of Brooks' (and Will's) fact-free pontificating.

Posted by: retr2327 | March 16, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Bang, got him.

Posted by: thefoxtrot | March 16, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I'm starting to think that we need a new model for political columns. If you want to write one, you agree to submit it for fact-checking -- not only to a neutral editor, but also to someone who disagrees with your argument. The editor still decides what holds up and what doesn't, but a person with a specific interest in identifying inaccuracies gets to apply a highlighter first. Can you imagine how many fewer obvious lies (from either side) would make it through if we did this? What is the argument for not doing it, other than that political columnists are impossibly self-important and would never agree to it?

Posted by: MosesCleaveland | March 16, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

On a day with a WSJ op ed with McConnell and Boener whining that they reached out and were rejected by obama to be bipartisan on HCR, Brooks is just another corner of winger la la land. Especially when 100 plus GOP amendments were included in the SFC markup of the senate bill that will largely be the final product. They have nothing else but lies and misinfo. The last gasps of a losing effort to stop dems from enacting HCR, complete with violent imagery of 'sake" soaked dem pol suicide from Lindsay Graham and "Ides of March" warnings from Trent Lott and Mark Sanford. Julius Caesar, I suspect was a republican, but no matter. They are about to lose this war and their lies from day one couldn't save them. No tears.

Posted by: GenStuck | March 16, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Ezra sinks Brooks without even pointing to Brooks's arbitrary distinction between rock-ribbed partisan filibusters versus the same for reconciliation.

And I had exactly the same thought as Moses (wish I could say that more often): in-house fact checkers needed for op-ed pieces!

Posted by: CatfishHunter | March 16, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

How did Lincoln Chafee vote on the 2003 tax cut? I don't feel like looking it up, but it seems to me he must have voted against. Some other R too, since Dems were in the minority by 2003. It may be noteworthy that Senate opposition to the bill was just as "bipartisan" as support for it.

Posted by: dollarwatcher | March 16, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

A correction, ha ha ha ha... You are thinking of the old days when a news outlet prided itself on facts and correctness. Whn factual credibility was an essential component of opinion and reporting.

Sorry those days are gone. It is the era of fantasy.

Posted by: sailor0245 | March 16, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Brooks can still get approving links from your cohorts (and maybe you -- can't remember), which bothers me. It seems to me that the heart of his job is trying to increase understanding, and that he has written enough columns which willfully disregard that objective that he should be treated as a menace.

Posted by: DaffyDuck2 | March 16, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

What, you expect him to know about the things he writes about? That is Socialism! It is un-American! That is the kind of thing, like gay marriage, that will lead to people marrying horses!

Having just typed that nonsense I now realize why so many people are drawn to the Republican Party. Winning arguments is really, really easy when you don’t care in the least about reality.

Any day now Republicans will tell us that we should do away with the TSA because it is too costly and, since the earth is flat, there really isn’t any need for the TSA.

Any day now Republicans will tell us we should do away with the Postal Service because Fedex and UPS are cheaper.

Any day now Republicans will tell us we should do away with the Department of Education because our children are the smartest in the world.

The sad thing is that most people in the media would let the above lies slide because they are 1) afraid to be labeled as liberals 2) think it is their job to play he said/she said and ignore the objective truth.

Do you want an example of Republican reality avoidance to prove my point? Last night Rachel Maddow had on JD Hayworth, below is a partial transcript (via Steve Benen at Washington Monthly) of one of their exchanges:

Maddow tried to explain that she looked for evidence to support Hayworth's claim, and couldn't find any.

"Well, that's fine," Hayworth said. "You and I can have a disagreement about that."

"Well, it either is true or it isn't," Rachel responded. "It's empirical."

Hayworth, perhaps unaware of what "empirical" means, replied, "OK. OK. I appreciate the fact that we have a disagreement on that."

Posted by: nisleib | March 16, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse


thank you for speaking truth to power, and calling these people out.
with their abuse of power, comes laziness and entitlement.
if brooks cant write a correction or an apology to his readers for not getting his facts right, he should be replaced with a writer who actually respects the truth, his audience and his good fortune to have a position of great influence.

Posted by: jkaren | March 16, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

When you look at all the fact-free hysteria now coming from all sides of the right and consider that the HR bill is actually fairly conservative then you have to consider that this is more than just political posturing.

Then look at this; the routine use of the filibuster plus the small state bias in the Senate equals a rural white minority veto over all federal legislation.

It is the Southern Strategy writ large and the re-introduction of the 3/5 dilution of what is now the "urban" vote. Or in Beckian terms, the return of the government to "white culture".

Posted by: BobFred | March 16, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the Bobo smack down -- couldn't happen to a nicer guy!

Posted by: scarlota | March 16, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Bart Stupak: Pelosi has only 200 votes!

Posted by: JakeD2 | March 16, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Oh, silly Ezra, as if facts matter! The right knows they just have to scream their lies, and the media will parrot them.

WaPost being the worst, of course.

Posted by: AZProgressive | March 16, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Tony Judt (in New York magazine): public intellectuals who aren’t an expert in something are “blah-blah generalists—and then you’re David Brooks. And you’re garbage.”

Posted by: bdballard | March 16, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Yes, indeed, Chafee voted against the 2003 tax cuts. If it hadn't been for Ben Nelson, they would have been defeated and we would have a surplus, not a deficit, now. But ol' Ben is still fighting for fiscal responsibility!

Posted by: Bloix | March 16, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

"Brooks isn't wrong in the sense that "I disagree with him." He's wrong in the sense that the column requires a correction."

You realize, of course, that revoking Brooks' creative license this late in his life would render him absolutely useless. The dude's old. And beyond old, he's conservative. You'd have better luck spinning straw into gold than trying to get him to change his behavior at this point in time. The only option would be for the Times to fire him. And you do know that we're trying to reduce the unemployment rate in this country, do you not?

Besides which, I understand that the Applebee's salad bar doesn't accept food stamps.

Posted by: slag | March 16, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

As others have mentioned, until 'fact checkers' get prominence in Newspaper web sites, we got to have such critical pieces. Thanks Ezra for that.

What will NYT do? Nothing. A responsible Media outlet will 'force' the writer to correct these statements. But Brooks is a too big of an ego that NYT would not dare to touch him.

The case is, couple of years back NYT failed so badly in certain reporting incidences and other folks were pointing out those things but NYT refused to take any corrective action which in the end pulled NYT further down; exactly same phenomenon is underway. People are telling NYT about the their mistakes (yes, it is NYT in the end which is responsible for letting get Brooks to away these irresponsible & factually incorrect statements) but there are no signs of it changing.

Who cares if they start their West Coast edition from SF then? (Being in Bay Area I would love to get a strong new web newspaper for the area...) Folks at Times building are refusing to correct, ready to sink further....

Posted by: umesh409 | March 16, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

The final sentence is the most important. "He's wrong in the sense that the column requires a correction."

Even the vaunted NYT's op-ed is suffering from partisan prism. The problem really with the HCR bill is that it's conservative. The reality that the facts don't fit with the politics has the punditry going through strange machinations to try and come up with a reason to be against it. This may be the only good reason to not have a public option.

Posted by: keilprti1 | March 16, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse


"Julius Caesar, I suspect was a republican, but no matter. "

No, the entire problem with Caesar was that he was not a small-r republican.

Posted by: adamiani | March 16, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Someone hasn't been paying attention to the new journalism rules. If you put it in an op-ed column, it becomes an opinion and there is no need for facts. The fact checking just becomes another opinion that one could, or could not, consider. That makes it fair and balanced.

Posted by: Jenn2 | March 16, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

David Brooks' logic probably goes something like this: Why not lie on the opinion pages? Is that not what pundits are hired for?

Honesty is for naive idiots like like Scott Reston, Walter Lipman, and Russell Baker -- idiots with tiny salaries who probably drove volkswagens, back in the day. Who even remembers those extinct intellectual dinosaurs? Personal codes of ethics are for snobs and hypocrites who would be excluded today from the really cool parties and well-paying cable and lecture circuit gigs.

Posted by: harold3 | March 16, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Also too the qualifier in your title -- "about reconciliation" -- isn't really necessary.

Posted by: Jenn2 | March 16, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Brooks was wrong, but your summary isn't much better.

In the 1980s, of the 6 reconciliation votes, the closest one was 52-47, and the next closest was 61-25. Conclusion: with one minor exception, always significant bipartisan support.

In the 1990s, of the 4 reconciliation votes, one was 51-50 and the next closest one was 54-45. Conclusion: one partisan, one mixed, 2 significant bipartisan support.

In the 2000s, of the 5 reconciliation votes, two were 51-50 and the next closest one was 54-44. Conclusion: 2 partisan, one mixed, 2 significant bipartisan support.

How you can square those numbers with "past reconciliation bills like the tax cuts were not significantly bipartisan by any stretch of the imagination" is beyond me. It is also clear that its use in non-bipartisan votes is increasing: 1980s, 0 (and 1 minor); 1990s, 1 (and 1 minor); 2000s, 2 (and 1 minor); 2010, 1.

Posted by: ostap666 | March 16, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Great comment from Chait's comments:

Brooks can be smart, and he can be conservative. He just hasn't figured out how to do both at the same time.

Posted by: vorkosigan1 | March 16, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Another factually wrong statement in Brooks' column that deserves attention: "Once partisan reconciliation is used for this bill, it will be used for everything, now and forever." Obviously, the rules restricting reconciliation to budget-related matters make it impossible to use reconciliation for much, if not most, legislation.

Posted by: kjmgrm | March 16, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

The opposite of "always" isn't "never".

It's "not always"

Posted by: rick_desper | March 16, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Facts, shmacts.

Posted by: sacomment | March 16, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Maybe he should run it past Erick Erickson next time, to ensure quality.

Posted by: ana1ana2 | March 16, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Are any of the above posters sending their qualms with David Brooks to the Times' ombudsman?

Much as I love to hear people disagree with me, it's probably more effective to wail on this guy.

Posted by: imherefortheezra | March 16, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Delicious. Thanks for the tasty snack at lunchtime. Back to the phones.

Posted by: benintn | March 16, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

"As for the prescription drug benefit? The prescription drug benefit didn't go through reconciliation. It was passed through the normal order. Brooks is simply wrong on this."

Wow, I wonder if this column would have ever even been published in anything like its current form if the New York Times had mandatory careful fact checking of columns by a well paid, well staffed, highly expert force. Of course I guess that's too expensive for them to do and stay in business. But what if it wasn't? Hmmm:

It's a good post. It was in Mark Thoma's links yesterday:

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | March 16, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I guess Brooks is learning from the Chosen one:D

Didn't Obama claim in a "town hall" speech in Ohio only yesterday that premiums will go down by 3000% once Obamacare passes!

Wonder when Ezra will write a post about that! Can't wait!

Posted by: darkskin1977 | March 16, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse


Obviously, the rules restricting reconciliation to budget-related matters can be broken whenever the majority want (passing Obamacare / government takeover of student loans this time, tort reform / privatizing Social Security next time ; )

Posted by: JakeD2 | March 16, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

This is a great takedown of Brooks' column. The guy is pining for a past that never existed.

Posted by: dhs08 | March 16, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

@dollarwatcher - 3 Republicans voted against the 2003 tax cuts: Chafee, Snowe, and McCain(!)

Posted by: jlk7e | March 16, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

In our undergraduate philosophy classes, as everyone remembers, we read ten or twenty pages of Hume with doe-eyed young co-ed David Brooks. From the compassionate Scottish fatso we learned an important philosophical lesson: to place some faith in the normal instincts of human sympathy. These would surely lead humane New York Times philosopher David Brooks to correct his mistakes and retract his column. It would really be pretty decent of him.

Sadly, we cannot be sure this will happen, because (unfortunately!), like so many Republicans in these sad modern times, his body is occupied by a slimy mutant space bug who forces him to do only evil. It is so sad, because he was so doe-eyed! Once.

Posted by: JaneG | March 16, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

"Obviously, the rules restricting reconciliation to budget-related matters can be broken whenever the majority want (passing Obamacare / government takeover of student loans this time, tort reform / privatizing Social Security next time ; )" - JakeD2

You do realize that it is only fairly small piece of "Obamacare" that is slated to pass through reconciliation. The vast majority of it was already passed by large majorities in both houses. 60 senators voting together doesn't count for anything these days?

Posted by: jeirvine | March 16, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Dream on JD2...I can't wait for repubs to try and privatize SS...

BTW The student loan program is a government guaranteed, low interest, loan program, so there is no takeover needed. It already is a govt program. Having the govt make the loans cuts out the bank middlemen that were just skimming off 15% for passing the money through them.

Posted by: srw3 | March 16, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Hell WILL freeze over before the NYT (or any newspaper) admits an error. And THAT will be centuries before a NYT columnist admits an error/lie. Do you rmember the NYT or Bill Kristol admiting any of his? I rest my case.

Posted by: dickdata | March 16, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

This is a great essay and an important essay.

The political columnists are said to be held to the "entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts" standard.

However, too often columnists are propagandists. I would like to see a Fact Check and Truth Check on columnists and bloggers.

This Panel should be up-to-this minute and should include a summary of the columnist/bloggers transgressions.

For example, the right wing blogger who claimed that Souter was a goat-fornicater has now been awarded a salaried position of power and influence at what right wing screaming conformists laughingly call "Liberal CNN.

This violent humunculous, whose language was even viler than I can quote, should not be allowed to escape his hate-filled libels.

The Right would suffer way more from having editors and reminders of what they said than liberals and progressives because the Right is a miasma of hatred, self-pity, and impotence.

Posted by: thomasjoyce | March 16, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I think it would be interesting to do a statistical analysis on op-ed writers. Take all of their writings over a certain period (say the last year) and come up with a metric that captures how many times they make factually incorrect statements. Then, post these results to hold these writers accountable.

Posted by: psethupathy | March 16, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

David Brooks REALLY needs to read this post. I am so utterly certain that he considers himself a smart, reasonable, fact-based guardian of quality discourse.

Or do you think he realizes that he's an utter fraud and just another lying shill?

Posted by: nylund | March 16, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

"Peak reconciliation use, in other words, was in the '80s, not the Aughts."

Why in the world would you (properly) write "the '80s" as "the '80s," yet write "the '00s" as "the Aughts"?

The decade wasn't called "the Aughts." It was "the '00s." How people pronounce that isn't your concern; you're a writer, using symbols to communicate. And the symbols used to denote decades are numerals, not words.

Posted by: ChristopherMc | March 16, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Oh: And "data" is a collective noun. This is America -- it takes a singular verb. No more "data aren't," thanks.

Posted by: ChristopherMc | March 16, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Excellent catches. However, you make a slip and say something which is uhm false.

You wrote "past reconciliation bills like the tax cuts were not significantly bipartisan by any stretch of the imagination." NOt true. By some stretch of the imagination the 2001 tax was significantly bipartisan. You discuss only the 2003 tax cut.

The correct statement is "It is not true that pas reconciliation bills like the tax cuts were significantly bipartisan" or equivalently "past reconciliation bills like the tax cuts were not *all* significantly bipartisan by any stretch of the imagination,"

Your statement is closer in meaning to (arguably identical in meaning to)
"past reconciliation bills like the tax cuts were *all* not significantly bipartisan by any stretch of the imagination,"

Brooks's statement is false. For a statement about a group of things to be true, it must be true of each of them. You accidentally wrote as if you assumed that if the statement is not true of all tax cuts it is not true of any tax cuts.

Don't feel bad. George Orwell wrote to Bertrand Russell (I am quoting from memory) something like "I have never been able to understand why the negation of "all men are tall" is "some men are short" and not "all men are short."

Posted by: rjw88 | March 16, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

Bless you. David Brooks is awful. His columns should be required reading in classes that teach social science methods, as examples of how not to think.

Posted by: Sophomore | March 16, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Ezra for a clearly rendered piece of explanatory journalism. I have dim memories of such work being unremarkably common in major print media.

A`question: How on earth did you sneak this past the editors?

Posted by: victoreador | March 16, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

One big difference between the so called health care "reform" and the Bush Tax cuts, the tax cuts were actually HUGELY POPULAR with the American people even if the ever taxing left hated them. Every poll on Health Care "Reform" shows a solid majority of Americans opposed to the current bill (assuming you can actually find a copy of the ever changing bill in the first place. Using reconciliation, or the even more appalling and unconstitutional "Slaughter Solution" will cause a public backlash against the Democrat party that will make them the minority party for a generation.

Posted by: CarlosHawes | March 17, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse

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