Inner Resources: Memories of a Bygone Filibuster

In a great piece detailing how the filibuster (a made-up Senate rule denounced by the Founders) has been used to stymie racial equality, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse catalogs some of the efforts for racial justice and equal rights that have been blocked by this pernicious parliamentary stunt.

The list, albeit not exhaustive, is extensive and illustrates the repeated use of the so-called right of the minority to extend Senate debate when their legislative ox is being gored.

Yet, somehow, that legislative ox appears to almost invariably wear a hood while carrying a sign saying “segregation forever.”

It was the filibuster that raised its antebellum head in 1964 to stall the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act during the Johnson Administration.

Indeed, I distinctly recall the scene on black & white television when Senator Hubert Humphrey stood before cameras to announce the end of the filibuster and the passage of the monumental legislative measure.

It was a lesson in both political history and statesmanship; for as Humphrey took a question from the press on the accomplishment, Republican Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois jostled Humphrey aside to speak and claim political credit.

Said Dirksen in his gravel-voiced drawl: “It was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do.”

Dirksen, sensing the moment in history and the gravity of the most important legislation to establish equality since Reconstruction would not leave the credit to the future Democratic Vice President for ending the roadblock.

Humphrey, statesman that he was, stood stoically letting Dirksen grab the limelight.

Humphrey understood the accomplishment would endure long after Dirksen’s bloviating ended.

But what would not end was the procedural vehicle in the Senate that had stalled the 1964 Civil Rights Act for some sixty days. And it was not Republicans who had stalled the bill, but Southern Democrats. The same Democrats who would become the core of the Republican Party in the South after Nixon.

The idea that the filibuster, therefore, has no “racial history,” a proposition ludicrously asserted by Minority Leader McConnell is both ignorant and ahistorical.

Its use to debate racial progress out of existence is well-documented, even while it still hides behind a veneer of the protection of minority rights. But for what minority and for whose protection?

The Senate and the Constitution itself have already provided for the enduring legislative protection of the minority through the so-called equal suffrage clause of Article V.

Indeed, the permanence of each State’s national voice in the Senate is arguably the only portion of our Constitutional structure that is immune from

amendment — thereby assuring each State a claim to no fewer and no more than two Senators.

Yet, the filibuster has arisen as the vehicle to exaggerate the power of even the least populous State in the Senate chamber and, as some scholars have argued, to actually dilute the idea of “equal suffrage,” by allowing the few to endlessly restrain the many.

The idea that a parliamentary rule may define our national destiny must now be examined and then abandoned — lest the progress of national democracy is further derailed by a veto power never written into our Constitution.

But, to do this, it seems it must be the Senate itself that acts. As its relevance to our Nation’s social progress declines, democracy may yet show itself adaptable to the moment and the need for change.

The change may come from a recognition that executive power can expand in the face of Senate intransigence — perhaps by a constitutional change that might allow for an override of a Senate-caused stalemate. And such changes would likely be more damaging to the Senate as an institution than ending the filibuster.

The question now is will the Senate see that it must, as Lincoln said, disenthrall itself

from a relic of the past and meet the difficulty of the present occasion.

-Albert Turner Goins



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