THE FILIBUSTER IS NOT A RELIC OF THE JIM CROW ERA
At his press conference yesterday, Joe Biden lied, including claiming that the Senate filibuster is “a relic of the Jim Crow era.” Both Biden and Obama fully supported and made use of the filibuster.
They never saw it as a Jim Crow relic because it isn’t. The Jim Crow era extends from the mid-1870s, following Reconstruction’s abandonment by President Hayes, to 1964, when landmark civil rights legislation was finally enacted.
IT WAS ABOUT SENATE PRINTERS IN 1841
The very first extended filibuster was over an objection to the hiring of Senate printers in 1841. Later that year, the Democratic minority engaged in an extended filibuster to block legislation that would establish a national bank.
Four years earlier, Whigs had used the filibuster against Democrats who moved to expunge from the record a Senate resolution censoring Andrew Jackson.
In 1917, frustrated senators wanted it used less, so they adopted the first cloture rule, which allowed the Senate to “invoke cloture” and end the debate with a two-thirds majority vote.
A couple of years later, the Senate used this cloture rule for the first time to end a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles. The cloture rule was later changed to allow debates to be ended with sixty votes, which is the rule today.
The filibuster created over Senate printers in 1841 isn’t as alarming as “the filibuster was created so that slaveholders could hold power over our government,” the false claim made by Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey.
But senate printers it is, and the truth is important. It predated Jim Crow.
THE CIVIL RIGHTS USES
Some civil rights bills were indeed filibustered. The most infamous of these filibusters did indeed occur during the Jim Crow era when then-South Carolina Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond used it to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Thurmond set the record for a single-person filibuster, talking for 24 hours and 18 minutes straight.
But at the end of Thurmond’s stubborn floor remarks, in which he read the voting laws of each of 48 different states and the U.S. criminal code to fill up the time, he didn’t actually change a single vote. The bill passed anyway.
When South Carolina Republican Tim Scott proposed a policing reform bill last year, Democrats used the filibuster to kill it. Scott, an African American man, probably finds it laughable that the Democratic Party used what it now refers to as a racist relic to defeat his legislation.
In reality, the filibuster was very rarely used against civil rights legislation until near the end of the Jim Crow era. It wasn’t needed for that purpose because only in the late 1940s did Congress muster much enthusiasm for passing such legislation.
There was, however, notable and sickening use of the filibuster against civil rights legislation in the early 1920s. Republicans, at the urging of President Harding, sought to enact an anti-lynching law. Democrats filibustered. Harding eventually had the legislation pulled so that other items on his agenda could get a vote. (In those days, filibusters were of the talking variety and thus held up the Senate.)
The filibuster was used against anti-lynching legislation in the 1930s, as well.
Civil rights legislation was filibustered routinely and largely without success in the 1950s and early 1960s. However, it should be clear from the foregoing discussion that the filibuster is not a relic of the Jim Crow era.
NOTHING TO DO WITH RACE
In fact, the continued existence of the filibuster has nothing to do with race. It exists so that parties can’t parlay thin majorities (or in the present circumstances, no Senate majority) into the enactment of sweeping, society-transforming legislation.
Donald Trump could have accomplished a great deal without the filibuster. Those sweeping changes were stopped by Democrats and the filibuster. The filibuster also prevents wild oscillations in policies.
In sum, Biden and Obama are dishonest about the filibuster on two levels. Their historical claim is bogus, and their opposition to the filibuster is inconsistent with their past positions on this practice.
The filibuster should not be weaponized, nor should race.