Focus on the Filibuster

On March the 7th in 2021, on Fox News Sunday, Senator Joe Manchin said “The filibuster should be painful, it really should be painful and we’ve made it more comfortable over the years.” On NBC’s Meet the Press, Manchin also said “If you want to make it a little bit more painful, make him stand there and talk.”

The filibuster was originally established to protect the rights of a Senate minority. It gave senators the ability to slow down or block a vote on any bill by talking, extensively, about the issue at hand. Senators could thereby draw attention to their own priorities. And the country would derive an important benefit when bills were fully and openly debated.

As the Senate became more compromised in an era of dark money politics, a creeping cowardice took hold through a series of rules changes. Where the original filibuster required members to stand up for their principles and actively engage in debate, senators could now avoid a vote without ever having to justify their positions. 

There was a time when the Senate called itself the world’s greatest deliberative body. It no longer has any real credibility with respect to that particular claim. When our leaders were required to stand up for their principles through the talking filibuster, they would proclaim their beliefs and explain why they disagreed with the majority. When they instead began to insert cookie recipes into the record, it became clear that any informed consent of the governed was not held to be of value.

Today, the filibuster is simply used as a pocket veto. Standing on principle and openly defending one’s stance is seen as an arcane banished idea by self-serving politicians with an insatiable appetites for dark money. It is understandable that a politician, intent on promoting an abhorrent set of values, would be reluctant to engage in honest introspection as he or she surreptitiously sells out the nation. In that context, the secret filibuster is a useful obfuscation device.

The filibuster was never a part of our Constitution. It was also not a part of the original Senate rules. Vice President Aaron Burr removed the rule, which allowed a simple majority to force a vote, in 1806. Senator Strom Thurmond holds the record for the longest individual filibuster. He spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes to stall passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. A few years later, Democrats led by Richard Russell Jr. famously held up the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for 60 working days.

After the Supreme Court of the United States gutted the major provisions of these Civil Rights Acts, Republican Senators led by Mitch McConnell, in January of 2022, have clearly defined themselves as they refuse to put a check on states that are still fighting the Civil War. Such senators refuse to engage in reforming those police departments that maintain a cop culture deeply rooted in the traditions of the slave patrols. They enable state legislatures and governors that are intent on sustaining the last gasp of the Three-Fifths Compromise which insured a black man or woman would never amount to more than three-fifths of a person at the ballot box. 

Senator Manchin’s fetish of bipartisanship, together with his reverence for a filibuster that is actively corroding the democracy underpinnings of our constitutional republic, are a great delight to real enemies of the United States. When the Senate rules were changed, so any Senator could block any bill from consideration or debate without having to explain or defend their action, the electorate was thrust into darkness.

The ability to block legislation, without ever engaging in open debate, helps senators to keep their dark money secrets. The “nuclear option” that then Senate Majority Leader McConnell used in 2017 to undermine the historic precedent of appointing judges that could draw consensus from both parties, was pivotal. The only ones that seem to be concerned about setting precedent, in punching through the filibuster, are those who have failed to learn from McConnell’s history of duplicity.

Any rookie salesperson could tell you that the Reconciliation Process would likely fail to deliver the Build Back Better legislation. Declaring the price up front, without first running through the features and benefits, was, to put it charitably, exceedingly stupid. But, it was the only option because of the filibuster. Likewise, all the voting rights initiatives are doomed to fail unless Senators are forced to stand in harsh lighting that is likely to penetrate any thin veneer of religiosity.

The changes, carve-outs, and exceptions have been playing out for decades. And yet, the secret filibuster continues to undermine the will of the majority in America. When Senators who want to block a vote must stay on topic, doing the difficult and open work of holding the floor; When they must explain why votes should not be honored, why healthcare should not be a basic right, why early childhood education should not be the norm, the content of each Senator’s character will be, as it should be, center stage. Talk about painful.

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