One week into the Biden presidency, the Democratically controlled Senate is facing its first procedural hurdle.
Despite a raft of executive orders setting him apart from his predecessor, and despite Democrats now holding a narrow congressional majority, Joe Biden will confront near intransigence on his agenda–among the first items being a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill–without Senate support for which an unprecedented amount of recent legislation has required a 60-vote supermajority to prevent filibusters.
Over the past couple days, many people have been finding the word “filibuster” become part of their vocabularies.
So what is the filibuster?
“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.”
Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy adds:
“The framers did not want the filibuster to exist. When they created the Senate, it was an institution that had no filibuster power. It was designed to be a majority-rule body.”
It is a procedural maneuver that allows 41 senators to slam the brakes on any proposed legislation.
It came after John C. Calhoun resigned as Andrew Jackson’s Vice President in order to take a South Carolina Senate seat.
As Jentleson explained on NPR‘s “Fresh Air“:
“So the progenitor of the filibuster, its main innovator, was John C. Calhoun, the great nullifier, the leader, father of the Confederacy. And Calhoun innovated the filibuster for the specific purpose of empowering the planter class. He was a senator from South Carolina. His main patrons were the powerful planters. And he was seeking to create a regional constituency to empower himself against the march of progress and against what was becoming clear was a superior economic model in the North. So Calhoun started to innovate forms of obstruction that came to be known as the filibuster.”
In other words, the Southern slave states were becoming a minority as more states entered the union, and the filibuster was his procedural solution to stymie abolitionist legislation.
“If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.
Adam Jentleson explains:
“[F]rom 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.”
It has also been wielded to protect corporate interests over the American people’s.
An example of this came in 2012 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. that left 20 first-grade students and six adults massacred.
In response, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) authored a modest bill to increase background checks for weapons purposes.
But despite 55 senators and 80-90% of the American public supporting it, gun industry-funded Republicans successfully used the filibuster to kill it.
With a Democratic majority, one might assume it would be simple to vote to relegate this Jim Crow relic to history’s ash heap.
But there are two Democrats refusing to do that: Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema.
Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell–fighting to hold on to any influence he may conceivably possess–said:
“Today two Democratic senators publicly confirmed they will not vote to end the legislative filibuster. They agree with President Biden’s and my view that no Senate majority should destroy the right of future minorities of both parties to help shape legislation. The legislative filibuster was a key part of the foundation beneath the Senate’s last 50-50 power-sharing agreement in 2001. I look forward to moving ahead with a power-sharing agreement modeled on that precedent.“
He went on the threaten that without the filibuster, Republicans might decide to absent themselves, thereby denying the Senate the quorum it needs to conduct business.
Seeing as though most Americans don’t know a filibuster from a dust buster, they might assume this is true–which is precisely what McConnell expects.
But Daily Kos political director David Nir breaks down the lie:
Note that if Republican senators refuse to show up for a quorum call, Democrats can direct the Senate's sargeant at arms to arrest them and compel their attendance. That's how radical a threat withholding quorum is—you can be arrested for doing so https://t.co/amZQnLS7Dr https://t.co/Cgfj4ECZVn
— David Nir (@DavidNir) January 26, 2021
Although McConnell has since dropped his opposition to scrapping the filibuster, the Republicans he leads and the Democrats Majority Leader Chuck Schumer leads will share power due to the Senate’s 50/50 split, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaker.
With that power sharing comes a delay committee assignments, which could impact President Biden’s controversial cabinet picks and legislation, like much-needed COVID-19 relief.
Without a committee re-organization, Republicans still outnumber Democrats, and McConnell still maintains a grip on which bills make it out of committee and which do not.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) explained:
“For new members, they are eager to report back to their constituents what their committees are and they can’t do that.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said:
“Things are on hold. I’ve got a lot of things I want to do…I want to get started on immigration. Everybody’s talking about immigration and I’m thinking this is our committee. We ought to be moving on it.”
By retaining the filibuster, we are preserving an anachronistic relic from a virulently racist past.
We are also perpetuating a system that gives wealthy special interests a louder voice than the American people’s, a voice the Supreme Court has already amplified several times with “corporate personhood” decisions.
Ironically, even though they are now in the minority, Republicans still wield this awesome power.
The question is, are Democrats going to finally step up and start playing the GOP at its own game?
Or will they just roll over in the name of “civility” and “unity”?
Image credit: Flickr