U.S. Senate filibuster empowers white supremacists and blocks progress

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East front of U.S. Capitol from the Senate wing. Image credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr

U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris are barnstorming the country on their "Help Is Here" tour, promoting the new, $1.9-trillion COVID-19 relief package. This, their first victory lap, may turn out to be their last. The Republican minority in the U.S. Senate seems firmly committed to deploying the filibuster to block all forthcoming Democratic legislation.

The filibuster is not enshrined in the constitution; it could be altered or eliminated through a simple majority vote of the Senate. As Republicans nationally ramp up an unprecedented attack on democracy, with at least 253 laws in 43 states, at last count, aimed at restricting voting rights, primarily targeting voters of colour, and with the certainty of extreme gerrymandering forthcoming as Republican-controlled state legislatures coordinate partisan redistricting, the need to eliminate the filibuster has never been more urgent.

The filibuster has long empowered white supremacists to protect and extend slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and all their modern manifestations, from voter suppression to mass incarceration. When Congress was founded, both the House and the Senate required only a simple majority to pass a bill. In 1805, vice-president Aaron Burr, while facing murder charges for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, suggested that the Senate remove its "previous question" rule, as it was almost never used. That minor edit created a fatal loophole in Senate procedures, ultimately allowing the minority party to obstruct progress by endlessly extending debate through what was later dubbed the filibuster.

In 1841, South Carolina senator John Calhoun, perhaps the fiercest defender of slavery in U.S. history, figured out that he could rally his fellow slave state senators, a minority in the Senate, to grind proceedings to a standstill with long speeches and other procedural obstacles.

"For the first 200 years of its existence, the Senate was majority rule," Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, explained on the Democracy Now! news hour. "Even as the filibuster started to develop in Calhoun's time, all that senators could do was delay a bill. They had to talk on the floor, and eventually they had to give up."

That changed after the First World War. Southern senators targeted anti-lynching laws, managing to block 200 attempts over the years to formally designate lynching as a federal crime. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul single-handedly blocked passage of the Emmet Till Antilynching Law in June of 2020, even though the bill passed the House by a vote of 400 to four.

Southern Democratic "Dixiecrats," led by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, also filibustered major civil rights legislation. Thurmond holds the record for filibustering, delaying passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act by speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was filibustered for close to 75 days before it finally passed.

The filibuster has been used more and more to block not just civil rights legislation but practically all progressive bills. As the filibuster is currently practiced, a senator does not need to hold the floor to stop a bill, but needs only to place a phone call to the Senate staff. Thus, a single senator has the power to secretly kill legislation, even a bill with overwhelming public support.

Congressional Democrats hope to pass a slew of bills: the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, to protect voting rights; the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act; bills to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour and major infrastructure bills that will include elements of a Green New Deal to combat catastrophic climate change. Democratic Congressmembers Pramila Jayapal and Debbie Dingell have just introduced a Medicare for All bill, which, amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has growing support.

None of these has a chance if the Senate filibuster stays in place. Democrats will need all 50 of their senators to change it, and, currently, conservative Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kirsten Sinema of Arizona have pledged to reject an outright ending of the filibuster. President Biden publicly supports a return to the "talking filibuster," requiring senators intent on filibustering to actually hold the floor, speaking without interruption. Manchin says he is open to that, and, presumably, Sinema could be convinced as well.

Kentucky Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged a "scorched earth" response to any change in the filibuster. McConnell, like slavery's arch-defender John Calhoun 180 years ago, wields raw power with a ruthlessness almost unparalleled in U.S. Senate history.

The filibuster has been a tool of white supremacists for far too long. A fleeting opportunity to end it has arrived; for the growing, diverse majority in this country, it has become an intolerable impediment to progress, and must end now.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr

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