In the last year or so, it seems like Mitch McConnell has made a game of angering all sides of the political spectrum (stimulus money, anyone?). But on one issue, that old Kentuckian is absolutely correct: The filibuster plays a critical role in the United States Senate. Removing it could indeed cause the “nuclear winter” McConnell described.
For those unfamiliar with the practice, current Senate rules allow for the principle of unlimited debate between members. When a senator’s party lacks the numbers to block a bill from passing Congress, the senator can speak for as long as he wishes to stall the proposal. The practice got so out of hand that the Senate implemented the two-thirds cloture in 1917. Today, it requires three-fifths of the legislature to formally end a given filibuster.
But recent calls to reform the filibuster or eliminate the practice entirely — which come mostly from Democrats — are suspicious in timing to say the least. In April 2017, more than 30 Democratic senators signed the Bipartisan Preserve Filibuster Letter, which was intended to do exactly as the name suggests. But less than four years later, many Democrats who signed this bill are quick to point to its history of legitimizing racist and anti-civil rights proposals.
This is not the first time that allies of President Joe Biden have threatened to fundamentally overhaul Senate proceedings. During the October 2020 vice presidential debate, Mike Pence slammed Kamala Harris for her unwillingness to admit that Biden would consider using the Senate to pack the Supreme Court in the Democrats’ favor.
But let me be clear: Republicans are not without blood on their hands here. The most conservative members of today’s Senate, such as Rand Paul and Flyin’ Ted Cruz are vehemently opposed to any filibuster reform. This is ironic, as neither Cruz nor Paul signed the aforementioned letter when they had the opportunity back in 2017.
In fact, both Paul and Cruz made use of the filibuster back in 2013. On March 6-7 that year, Paul spoke for nearly 13 hours to stall the confirmation vote of John Brennan for CIA director. And on Sept. 24-25, Cruz filibustered for more than 21 hours as he railed against increased Obamacare funding … while reading Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” in the process. (This has aged just beautifully.)
Amazingly, Cruz’s filibuster is not the longest in American history — that honor belongs to Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. In 1957, Thurmond spoke for more than a full 24 hours, beginning at 8:54 p.m. on Aug. 28 and ending at 9:12 p.m. the following day. What piece of legislation could be so terrible that Thurmond needed to dedicate an entire day of his life to blocking? Why of course, it was the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which authorized the prosecution of those who interfered with African Americans’ right to vote.
Today, Thurmond’s filibuster is the poster boy for progressives who call for an end to the practice. But even a full day of racist ranting did not stop the Civil Rights Act of 1957 from becoming law. Less than two hours after Thurmond relinquished the floor, the act passed the Senate in a 72-18 vote. It was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower less than two weeks later.
The filibusters of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were equally unsuccessful. Hours after Paul finished speaking, John Brennan was confirmed as CIA director in a 63-34 vote; Brennan remained in the position for nearly four years. And of course, Cruz’s filibuster did not change the fate of the Affordable Care Act, which remains in effect after Trump-era Republicans failed to repeal it.
So if the filibuster has enabled racism and is ineffective, why keep it? Well, it instills faith among senators (and voters) in the minority. Can you imagine the outcry from Republicans of federal tyranny if Democrats moved on abolishing it now? Can you imagine that same outcry from Democrats if Rand Paul and Ted Cruz refuse to sign another bipartisan proposal to save the filibuster, but then proceed to abolish it if Republicans flip the Senate in 2022?
Plus, if the Senate has ultimately considered filibusterers’ concerns and still voted in favor of a bill, is that not just a part of our democratic process? America’s Founders allowed for unlimited Senate debate because they wanted to stop lunacy from becoming law, not the other way around.