Tuesday Reads: Senate Gridlock and the FilibusterPosted: January 26, 2021
There is quite a bit happening in the news, and I have to admit that I haven’t been paying as much attention to it as I usually do. It has been such a relief to have Trump gone–at least for a week or two–that I’ve been spending more time reading for pleasure instead of focusing on politics. But looking around this morning, I see there’s a lot going on. There’s Biden’s agenda and Democratic control of the Senate; there’s impeachment; there’s the continuing problem of right wing conspiracy theories and the the people who’ve been sucked in by them; and there’s still Trump and his defenders trying to find ways to remain relevant.
What’s going on in the Senate right now is the biggest story, I think. Mitch McConnell folded last night, and Schumer now controls the Senate.
The Washington Post: McConnell relents on Senate rules, signals power-sharing deal with Democrats.
This guy used to work for Harry Reid and he wrote a whole book about getting rid of the filibuster.
Anand Giridharadas interviews with Adam Jentleson at The Inc: How to save the Senate.
Adam Jentleson once served as deputy chief of staff to the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, witnessing the deal-making and obstructionism and change-killing up close. He now works for an anti-corruption organization called Democracy Forward. And he has written a new book whose title and subtitle speak for themselves: “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.”
The other day, I asked Adam to do me — and all of us — a favor. I would ask him some of the stupid questions we might be afraid to ask about this strange institution that shapes our lives, and he would answer.
Read the interview at the link. Here’s Jentleson on the history of the filibuster:
Not only was the filibuster not an original feature of the Senate, the framers were explicit that they would have opposed anything like it. For all their vaunted concern for protecting the rights of minority factions, they were very clear that after the minority had been given a role in the process, all decision points were to be majority-rule. This applied to the Senate, too. They were so focused on this because the Articles of Confederation had been a disaster for the exact reason that they required a supermajority threshold to pass most major legislation.
They were also familiar with all the arguments we hear today for why supermajority thresholds foster bipartisanship. And they dismissed them all. Here’s Hamilton in Federalist 22: “What at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison.” Instead of encouraging cooperation, he said, the end result of requiring “more than a majority” would be “to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices” of a minority to the “regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.” They were very clear about this. In a way, they saw Mitch McConnell coming.
Historians disagree about when the first filibuster was. In 1806, the Senate got rid of the rule that let a majority vote to end a debate when it turned obstructionist. Since obstruction was not a major problem at the time, no one really noticed that this rule was gone. It took decades for this to matter.
But then in the 1830s, John Calhoun, the virulent racist, scion of slaveowners, and spiritual father of the Confederacy, arrived in the Senate. He exploited this loophole to become the leading innovator in creating what we would recognize today as the talking filibuster: Jimmy Stewart-style, standing on the floor giving a long-winded speech. He was not the only one to use it, but he was its leading innovator. And he did it because the South and the slave power were becoming outgunned. Calhoun needed to increase the power of a numerical minority in the Senate to block things, or else the South was doomed.
Fast forward to the twentieth century. Obstruction has gotten a lot worse. In 1917, the Senate is humiliated in the eyes of the public when a filibuster blocks President Wilson’s bill to arm American merchant ships in response to U boat attacks. After being raked across the coals by Wilson, with senators being burned in effigy, senators come back and pass a new rule designed to end filibusters—to “terminate successful filibustering,” as they put it at the time. This is called Rule 22. It introduces a concept called “cloture,” a.k.a. closure, which is basically that rule that got nixed in 1806 — the idea that when a filibuster has gone on too long, senators can vote to end it.
The problem was that they set the threshold for ending debate at a supermajority, thinking that reasonable senators could agree when a vote had gone on too long, which was consistent with the ethic of the time. Once again, Southern white supremacists were the chief innovators. Jim Crow segregationist senators of the South used this new supermajority threshold to block every civil rights bill that came before the Senate during this period.
This is important to emphasize, because we are taught that there is some noble wisdom in the Senate’s delay: during the Jim Crow era, the country was ready to pass civil rights bills. It was a power play, pure and simple. Southern senators saw they were outnumbered, and they needed a way to increase the power of a numerical minority to block bills in the Senate. This motivation led them to innovate the regular use of the supermajority threshold to block civil rights bills.
There’s much more at the link, and it’s fascinating.
In other big Senate news, Rob Portman is retiring in 2022. Mother Jones: Rob Portman Is Retiring Because of Senate Dysfunction He Spent Years Supporting.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) announced Monday that he won’t seek reelection in 2022. One reason he chose to retire, he said in announcing his decision, is because “it has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy.”
But if Portman didn’t like partisan gridlock, he shouldn’t have spent years supporting it.
A loyal Republican, Portman has been a reliable ally and backer of Mitch McConnell, his party’s leader in the Senate and a key architect of the Senate’s current dysfunction. When Barack Obama won the White House, McConnell attempted to make him a “one-term president” by rallying Republican Senators to block every one of his initiatives. Attempts by Democrats to work across the aisle failed; Obamacare limped across the finish line after the GOP refused to support it for a year. A graveyard of legislation passed by the House of Representatives piled up in the Senate, where McConnell reportedly didn’t mind his nickname of “grim reaper.” “Rarely has a political figure pinned his fortunes on accomplishing so little,” the Associated Press noted of McConnell in 2019.
Today, McConnell is preparing to run the same plays that he developed against Obama on President Joe Biden. As a first step, over the last week, he has held up the business of organizing the new Senate in an attempt to protect the filibuster. The modern filibuster, created in the early 20th century to defeat post-Reconstruction civil rights legislation, requires 60 of the 100 senators to greenlight legislation for passage. Under Mitch McConnell, it became a tool to defeat everything Democrats want—the key to his strategy of gridlock and obstruction.
The filibuster is a weapon of minority rule, and McConnell wants to keep it because it will give him the power to kill legislation even in a Senate he no longer controls. Portman, who is now throwing up his hands at the upper chamber’s hopeless gridlock, also supports maintaining the filibuster. The “Senate supermajority…forces us to work together,” Portman claimed in a tweet backing the filibuster on Sunday. “It provides stability.”
It all goes back to white supremacy, doesn’t it? But Portman is leaving, and that’s not good for McConnell and the GOP.
And what about the impeachment trial? We don’t know much yet, but Biden supports it. Kaitlin Collins at CNN: Biden tells CNN Trump’s impeachment trial ‘has to happen.’
Biden made the comment during a brief one-on-one interview with CNN in the halls of the West Wing. He acknowledged the effect it could have on his legislative agenda and Cabinet nominees but said there would be “a worse effect if it didn’t happen.”
Biden told CNN he believed the outcome would be different if Trump had six months left in his term, but said he doesn’t think 17 Republican senators will vote to convict Trump.
“The Senate has changed since I was there, but it hasn’t changed that much,” Biden said.
His comments came the same night the House impeachment managers formally triggered the start of Trump’s second impeachment trial after they walked across the Capitol and began reading on the Senate floor the charge against Trump, the first president in history to be impeached twice.
I’m running out of space already, but here are more important stories to check out, links only:
Morning Consult: Biden’s Initial Approval Rating Is Higher Than Trump’s Ever Was.
Karen Tumulty at The Washington Post: Biden is betting on Senate compromise. So far, it’s paying off.
Bess Levin at Vanity Fair: Anthony Fauci Explains What It Was Like Working for a World-Renowned Moron.
Caleb Ecarma at Vanity Fair: Josh Hawley Uses National Media to White about Being Censored.
Another viewpoint on an issue we’ve been discussing from Stephen Lane at WBUR: This Is What Is At Stake When We Talk About Transgender Athletes.
That’s it for me. What’s on your mind today?