End the Filibuster NOW

Closeup of mural of Congressman John R. Lewis (1940-2020) (Photo by Thomas Cizauskas, published under Creative Commons license) — Artist: Sean Schwab Atlanta (Sweet Auburn), Georgia, USA. Painted 2012.
Closeup of mural of Congressman John R. Lewis (1940-2020) (Photo by Thomas Cizauskas, published under Creative Commons license) — Artist: Sean Schwab Atlanta (Sweet Auburn), Georgia, USA. Painted 2012.

The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, passed by House of Representatives on January 13, is held hostage today by the Senate filibuster threat—a disgraceful tactic that has repeatedly blocked voting rights, civil rights, and anti-lynching legislation for more than a century. 

One hundred years ago, in 1922, a filibuster killed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. In 1934, the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill failed, as “southern senators threatened to filibuster and the Democratic leadership refused to take up the bill for full debate.”[1] The bill was brought up again in 1935 and again blocked by a filibuster. In the next Congress, 58 anti-lynching bills were introduced, and one was passed by the House. Again, it was killed by a six-week filibuster of southern Democrats and Republicans. Notably, Republicans said they supported the bill but refused to vote for cloture. President Roosevelt backed away from the bill, saying, “If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take that chance.”[2] The final effort to pass an anti-lynching bill in 1939 also failed, with Senators giving in to the mere threat of a filibuster. In 2019, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was blocked by a threat of a filibuster by a single Senator, Rand Paul. The bill was re-introduced in December 2021.[3] That’s right: all the way to the present day, the filibuster has blocked federal anti-lynching legislation. 

In 1891, the House of Representatives passed the Lodge Bill, which proposed protection against legislation in southern states to take away Black voting rights. A filibuster in the Senate killed the bill. Then Congress repealed the 1870s Enforcement Acts that had provided federal supervision of state elections to protect Black voting rights.

The longest one-senator filibuster in history delayed, but did not ultimately stop, passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was met with a 60-day filibuster, but also eventually passed. A bi-partisan super-majority ended a filibuster of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

The filibuster is not part of the Constitution and was not even part of the original Senate rules. Changes to the Senate rules, proposed by Vice President Aaron Burr in 1806, opened the door to the filibuster. Before that time, a simple majority vote could cut off debate and move a bill to a vote. The change in rules meant the debate was unlimited—as long as Senators continued to debate, no bill could get to a vote. In 1917, the Senate passed the cloture rule, which allowed cutting off a filibuster by a two-thirds majority vote, and in 1975, the Senate reduced the number needed to 60 votes. 

Both Democratic and Republican majorities in the Senate have tweaked the filibuster since then, exempting some nominations and legislation. Until the early 1970s, a filibuster required Senators actually speaking on the floor. Now the mere threat of a filibuster can stop legislation. 

The argument for the filibuster is the same as the argument against the filibuster: this tactic allows a minority, sometimes a very small minority, to block legislation that is supported by the majority. 

It is time to end this minority-rule tactic that has been used to block civil rights legislation for more than 100 years and now threatens voting protections needed to preserve democracy and protect against the biggest internal threat to the nation since the Civil War. 


[1] Jenkins, Jeffery A., Justin Peck, Vesla M. Weaver. “Between Reconstructions: Congressional Action on Civil Rights, 1891–1940.” Studies in American Political Development, 24 (April 2010), p. 80. doi:10.1017/S0898588X10000015  <https://veslaweaver.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/jenkinspeckweaver2010.pdf&gt;

[2] Ibid., p. 85. 

[3] Representative Bobby Rush. “A somber anniversary illustrates why Congress must pass Emmett Till Antilynching Act.” The Hill, 12/4/2021. < https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/politics/584359-a-somber-anniversary-illustrates-why-congress-must-pass-emmett>

1 Comment

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One response to “End the Filibuster NOW

  1. Barbara Gilbertson

    Pausing right here in my read of your January 17, 2022 post:

    ‘President Roosevelt backed away from the (Anti-Lynching) bill, saying, “If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take that chance.”[2]’

    Not exactly a full-throated proclamation favoring racial justice, eh? Back to reading this post…

    Like

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