Jim Crow Filibuster Could Die in Democratic Senate Next Year

c.1928 political cartoon of a filibuster via the Library of Congress

The word “filibuster” rolls off the tongue kind of weird—kind of like it’s coming back up again. That’s the larger sentiment behind the word for many frustrated senators, as well.

The filibuster is a legislative maneuver that originally let senators debate indefinitely on legislation in order to prevent a vote. The Senate has gotten lazier with it in the last few decades and allowed the tactic to devolve into a simple 60-vote requirement to pass Senate bills. Now it gives incredible power to the minority party in the Senate by forcing bills to require a total of 60 votes in order to pass. Since one party rarely holds more than 56 seats in the Senate, the filibuster stymies most legislation opposed by the minority party, and that’s most of them.

In the 1999-2000 period, the Senate filed 71 motions to invoke the 60-vote requirement. By the 2019-2020 year, it filed292. In fact, only 526 cloture votes were filed within the entire two decades leading up to the year 1999. Not surprisingly, critics say senators on both sides have abused the tactic. Senate Leader Mitch McConnel, R-Kentucky, blocked the brunt of judges nominated by the nation’s first Black president, allowing President Donald Trump to appoint nearly 200 judges and remake the court system in Trump’s image.

cloture – The only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter, and thereby overcome a filibuster. Under the cloture rule (Rule XXII), the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by vote of three-fifths of the full Senate, normally 60 votes. Source: senate.gov

The filibuster is romanticized in Hollywood films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but the reality is the tool is most effectively used by racists to keep the nation segregated. Political parties were not the same creatures they were in 1960s America. The Democratic Party used to be heavily influenced by racist Southern Democrats (also known as Dixiecrats) who filibustered heavily to fight the passage of Civil Rights-era bills. Dixiecrats adore lynching, and they fought anti-lynching legislation through the filibuster. Even today, the Senate has failed to pass anti-lynching legislation, with one Republican stalling its passage. Weeks before the election, H.R. 35—the Emmitt Till Antilynching Act—still waits for a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate, months after passing the Democratically-controlled House.

Racist Sen. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a well-known Dixie-crat who switched to the Republican Party after a Democrat president passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, also resorted to the filibuster. Thurmond, an avowed monster who once declared Washington laws “cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation” most famously pushed a 24-hour, 18-minute speech against a Civil Rights bill in 1957.

Knowing the filibuster’s history, former president Obama advocated earlier this year for its elimination. Speaking at the eulogy of U.S. Representative and Civil Rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Obama urged the House and Senate to honor Lewis by passing a voting rights act named after him. The new law would expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and would effectively end the practice of restricting votes and expelling legitimate voters under the guise of “cleaning up voting,” or whatever. The act passed in the House, but only one Republican, so far, has offered to support it. The McConnel Senate has not brought it up for a vote, and Republicans will likely filibuster it in a Democratically-controlled Senate.

Obama also called for legislation to automatically register citizens to vote and to finallygrant congressional representation to Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, whose citizens are still not allowed a senator. He also pushed to make Election Day a federal holiday and to end partisan gerrymandering. (Editorial note: all of these issues are topics The Lighthouse has addressed in earlier stories.) Obama said the filibuster should not stand in the way of these obvious freedoms.

“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” Obama said.

If the Senate election in November goes the direction polls suggest, Democrats may want to ditch the filibuster. One article in Politico announced Democrats already know this and are building a coalition of allies to kill the thing if they sweep the upcoming election.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told reporters that voters didn’t want a replay of the Obama presidency, where McConnell used the filibuster to undermine a slew of Democratic proposals.

“Having lived through that horror film, they’re not ready to watch it again,” Merkley said. “And so, I think our senators are going to be hearing about that.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), agreed, telling reporters he would not “stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration’s initiatives blocked at every turn.”

“… [I]f there’s a Biden administration, it will be inheriting a mess, at home and abroad. It requires urgent and effective action,” Coons added.

Even Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who is looking to be the winner in November, according to polls, said he is open to the prospect.

“I think it’s gonna depend on how obstreperous (Republicans) become,” Biden said. “… I have not supported the elimination of the filibuster because it’s been used as often … the other way around [for Republicans benefit], but I think you have to just take a look at it.”

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