USA Senate Politics: The Filibuster Was Grounded in Slavery and Now Threatens All Life

Today it’s a convenient shield for cowardly senators to avoid going on the record about their opposition to popular legislation, instead they say, “Hey, it takes 60 votes; what can I do?”

By Thom Hartmann | Consortium News

IT IS TIME TO END THE FILIBUSTER AND BRING DEMOCRACY TO THE U.S. SENATE.

The filibuster was invented by “the Grandfather of the Confederacy” John C. Calhoun, and its only purpose is to block legislation that otherwise has broad popular support but is opposed by racists and big corporate special interest groups.   

It is not even in the Constitution; the Founders were horrified by the thought of such a thing, because it allows a 2/5th minority of senators to block any action by the senate majority. 

Sadly, TWO DEMOCRATIC SENATORS, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, recently blocked the Senate from killing this democracy-crippling anachronism.  

HIDDEN HISTORY  

The Founding generation were almost universally opposed to anything resembling the filibuster; James Madison fought any such rule right up until his death in 1836.

It is, after all, anti-democratic in that it gives a minority of senators the ability to block any legislation simply BY RAISING THEIR HAND OR SENDING A ONE-SENTENCE NOTE to their colleagues. A single senator can invoke it, and a minority of 41 out of 100 senators can sustain it until legislation dies. 

By the 1830s, the institution of slavery was under widespread attack in America. England had outlawed it, northern states were hardening their opinions, and the national debate that erupted a decade earlier with the Missouri Compromise was becoming heated.

Former President John Quincey Adams (1825–1829), after he left the White House, ran for and was elected to the House of Representatives with the main purpose of ending slavery; Congress had passed a law against slavery even being mentioned in debate on the floor and Adams went out of his way to break that law every single day that Congress was in session. 

John C. Calhoun had been Adams’ vice president – they were bitter enemies; it was because nobody won a majority in the Electoral College and the election was thrown to the House – and then Andrew Jackson’s vice president. In 1832, he resigned as VP to be appointed to South Carolina’s Senate seat by that state’s governor.

Once in the Senate, Calhoun invented the filibuster specifically to increase the power of his plantation-owning colleagues and block any sort of anti-slavery legislation. Calhoun not only defended the right to keep human beings enslaved; in an infamous 1837 floor speech he called slavery “a positive good.” 

CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS DELAYED FOR A CENTURY 

AND IT WORKED. The filibuster not only kept any anti-slavery legislation from being passed throughout Calhoun’s lifetime, but after Reconstruction collapsed with the Hayes election in 1876 it was turned against Civil Rights legislation.

As historian Adam Jentleson notes: “From the 87 years between when Reconstruction ended until 1964, the only category of legislation against which the filibuster was deployed to actively stop bills in their tracks was civil rights legislation.” 

In 1964 and 1965 Southern conservatives tried to block LBJ’s civil- and voting-rights legislation with a filibuster; President Johnson, however, invoked the death of JFK and mobilized massive nationwide popular support to pressure senators to pull together a successful super-majority and overcome the Southern filibuster. SADLY, SUCH EXAMPLES ARE RARE. 

NOW USED BY BIG BUSINESS 

Today the filibuster is used by special interests to protect their own financial interests such as keeping weapons of war on our streets, killing our children in numbers not seen in any other developed country in the world. 

For example, after the brutal 2012 slaughter of 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) put together a modest bill to increase the use of background checks to purchase weapons.

Fully 55 senators supported the legislation, AS DID 80–90 PERCENT OF THE AMERICAN PUBLIC, but Republicans beholden to the gun industry launched a filibuster, killing the legislation by requiring 60 votes for passage. 

The filibuster was a useful tool — and excuse for racist senators — to block any sort of civil rights legislation for four generations. Today it is a convenient shield for cowardly senators to avoid going on the record about their opposition to popular legislation, instead just shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Hey, it takes 60 votes; what can I do?”

Since the 1960s, the filibuster is the favorite tool of well-funded special interests like the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Big Banking to prevent any sort of meaningful action on climate change, labor rights and consumer protections, among other things.

Senate Democrats represent 41 MILLION MORE American voters than do Senate Republicans, but the minority GOP is today using the filibuster to help out their billionaire donors and the industries that made them rich the same way Southern senators did to keep slavery intact prior to the Civil War. 

MODIFY THE FILIBUSTER?   

Most Americans think the filibuster requires a senator to stand and talk and talk and talk, and ends when the senator sits down — because most Americans got their information about it from dramatizations like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. 

IF THE FILIBUSTER CAN’T BE IMMEDIATELY KILLED, A SHORT-TERM MEASURE MAY BE TO MODIFY THE RULES AROUND IT TO ACTUALLY MAKE IT WORK THE WAY IT IS PORTRAYED IN THE MOVIES. That way, it must eventually end and a majority vote can be held.  

It has been modified many times over the years, after all. Harry Reid oversaw ending the filibuster on federal judges; Mitch McConnell extended that to Supreme Court justices so he could get Trump’s controversial nominees through. AT ONE TIME IT REQUIRED 66 VOTES; NOW IT’S 60. 

This “stand and speak, and when you sit down it ends” change may well be the thing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he had up his sleeve when interviewed Jan. 25 by Rachael Maddow. IT COULD WORK.

CALL YOUR SENATORS 

The contemporary filibuster’s open Senate advocates include every single Republican (in the pocket of all the industries listed above, among others) and Democrats Joe Manchin (Big Coal/Oil) and Kyrsten Sinema (Big Banks & Insurance).

If Manchin and Sinema continue to block Democrats’ efforts to end the filibuster to protect their biggest donors, large parts of the Biden agenda are in grave danger. Worse, with the near-certainty it’ll be used to block effective climate legislation, their obstruction threatens all life on Earth. 

The office of every U.S. senator can be reached by calling 202–224–3121. Now might be a good time to let your two senators, along with Manchin and Sinema, know your opinion.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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Comments

  • brandli62  On 04/05/2021 at 8:16 am

    Even without the filibuster rule, conservative and rural states, such a Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, are with two senate seats each heavily overrepresented in the US Senate. California with 39 million people has two seats too……

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/08/2021 at 12:52 pm

    The Price Tag On Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Sounds Like A Lot. It is Not.

    $2 Trillion Over Eight Years Is a Drop in the Bucket

    By Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research | DC Report

    Quick, how much is $2 trillion?

    That’s the amount President Joe Biden wants for his infrastructure package.

    OK, it is more money than even Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have, put together. That probably still doesn’t give people too much information since most people don’t have much familiarity with these folks’ fortunes.

    But it might be helpful if the media made some effort to put the proposed spending in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package in a context that would make it meaningful.

    The spending is supposed to take place over EIGHT YEARS which means that it would be equal to just over 0.8% of projected Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, over this period. GDP measures the country’s economic activity.

    AT $250 BILLION A YEAR, IT COMES TO ABOUT $750 PER PERSON EACH YEAR OVER THIS PERIOD.

    That is less than 40% of what we are projected to spend on prescription drugs over this period and less than half of the higher prices that we will be paying as a result of government-granted patents and related monopolies.

    – For some reason, the money transferred to the drug companies and other beneficiaries of these government-granted monopolies never gets called “big government”.

    Anyhow, instead of reporting $2 trillion as some big scary number, often not even telling people the time period involved, it would be helpful if news outlets tried to put the number in contexts that would make it meaningful to their readers.

    We get that reporting big numbers is a cool fraternity ritual among budget reporters, but making these numbers meaningful is actually supposed to be their job.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 04/08/2021 at 2:08 pm

    Republicans Are Concerned About The Debt Again …..

    Republican lawmakers who voted to grow the national debt under President Trump are trumpeting fiscal conservatism again during a Democratic presidency.

    By JM Rieger | The Washington Post

    Over the past month, Senate Republicans have acknowledged something that would have been anathema a decade ago: Debt and deficits not only grew during the Trump administration, but grew in part because of Republican-backed policies over that time.

    “To some degree that’s true. I mean the previous administration, debt and deficits weren’t a high priority for them,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said on March 5 when asked about the growth of debt under President Donald Trump.

    “Republicans and Democrats alike have been responsible for increasing the spending, but it’s always Democrats wanting to spend more than the Republicans,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said on March 10.

    “I don’t think anybody has a very good record for the last decade on this,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said on Sunday when asked about the growing national debt.

  • brandli62  On 04/08/2021 at 3:14 pm

    “Republicans and Democrats alike have been responsible for increasing the spending, but it’s always Democrats wanting to spend more than the Republicans,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said on March 10.

    This is just a lie! Under each Republican president going back to Ronald Reagan the federal debt has ballooned. By contrast, it had been reduced under the Democratic presidents Clinton and Obama. The latter was first forced to increase it massively to handled the 2008 financial crisis, which was had unfolded under the “watchful” eyes of his predecessor, George W. Bush… Trump and his Republican enablers went on a huge tax cut and spending spree benefiting the rich, primarily. This was all done under a boom economy that did not really need any further stimulus.

    So much for the Republican myth of financial responsibility……

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