Blogs > Cliopatria > The Filibuster Expands

Dec 27, 2007 3:16 pm

The Filibuster Expands

Although the term filibuster was first applied to the practice in the 1850s, the opportunity for unlimited Senate debate dates from the creation of the Republic. Indeed, in the 19th century—especially the 1830s and 1840s—great Senate oratory was something of a spectator sport.

The first restriction against the concept came in 1917. Just days before the end of the congressional session, Woodrow Wilson introduced a measure to allow the government to arm U.S. merchant ships, to protect them against German submarines. The House easily passed the"armed ship bill," but it floundered in the Senate. Around 15 left-wing senators opposed the measure, on the grounds that it would invariably drag the United States into the European conflict. Organized by Robert La Follette, George Norris, and Foreign Relations Committee chairman William Stone, they decided to filibuster the bill until the session ended, which would effectively kill the measure.

The bill's supporters weren't exactly well-organized—they wound up consuming more time in debate than did the critics. Wilson, however, fumed that"a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible. (The President than armed the ships by executive order.) A public outcry led the Senate to adopt Rule 22, which allowed cloture by a vote of two-thirds.

After the Wilson years, cloture would not again be imposed until 1962—and then to terminate a liberal filibuster against John Kennedy's commercial satellite proposal (which created a public-private partnership with AT&T). But Southerners' ability to weaken or kill civil rights measures through filibuster came to an end in 1964, when the Senate successfully imposed cloture on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Through the 1960s, filibusters were just that: talk-a-thons on the Senate floor. But after the Senate changed its rules in the early 1970s to allow cloture with 60 rather than 67 votes, the threat of a filibuster became a parliamentary tactic—used by the minority to demand a supermajority before significant bills would pass.

In the last 15 years, the use of the filibuster expanded dramatically: a turning point was the 1993-1994 Congress, when the Bob Dole-led Republicans used the tactic liberally, requiring 47 cloture votes (as opposed to just 24 in the previous Congress). When the Democrats fell back into the minority after 1994, they imitated Dole's tactics, and the threat of filibusters remained stable throughout the 1990s.

A recent chart prepared by the left-leaning Campaign for America's Future, however, indicates a stunning change in the current Congress: through December 18, more cloture votes have occurred in this Senate session than in any full congressional session in U.S. history. The projected total of cloture votes for the full session, at the current rate, is 134. The previous high was 61.

This change amounts to a constitutional amendment by parliamentary tactic: Senate Republicans effectively have required a supermajority for virtually any contested bill. (Senate Republicans two years ago called for eliminating the filibuster, but only on judicial nominees.) It's hard to motivate people behind a"good-government" cause. But if members of both parties feel that a super-majority should be required to pass any Senate measure, they should be forthright about it, and propose a constitutional amendment. In the interim, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, if the GOP reclaims the majority in 2008) should at the very least return to the pre-1974 practice, and force those intent on filibustering to actually consume time on the floor actually filibustering.

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Jonathan Dresner - 1/2/2008

There was a stray "l" on the end; common error.

Jonathan Dresner
HNN Assistant Editor

Ralph E. Luker - 1/2/2008

You try it. The link doesn't work. No one disputes that Dirksen played an important role in invoking cloture and getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed in the Senate.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/2/2008

Ralph E. Luker - 1/1/2008

You're both overclaiming and underclaiming -- understandable, given your obvious unwillingness to be anything but a shill for a partisan position. Dirksen wasn't the author of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and there's no straight line from it to what you believe is Michigan's discriminatory racial preferences.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/1/2008

Republicans did supply the necessary votes at the margin for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, no matter how you slice it. I believe it was authored by a Republican, too, Everett Dirksen.

Of course, if the Senate had known in 1964 that racial equality would be followed by racial discrimination in favor of blacks, it would never have passed the act. Affirmative action has never won a vote anywhere, and in fact it lost 58-42 in Michigan in 2006, (hardly a conservative year), despite a liberal judge watering down the Connerly text by requiring use of the words "repeals affirmative action" in the ballot language, which many thought would be a poison pill. The original text had simply called for an end to racial preferences in public education, hiring and contracting.

The "Michigan Civil Rights Initiative" was enormously out-spent by its opponents, opposed by both political parties, nearly all newspapers and candidates, and other PC groups and large corporations, etc. Nobody wanted it except the people. It passed in all but two counties--in a notorious hotbed of racism, the state of Michigan.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/31/2007

Yes, and you welcomed the heirs of those 21 Democrats into the Republican Party, confirming it as home to Dixiecrats, segregationists, racists, and nativists. Congratulations. It hardly qualifies you to praise the Republicans for supplying the votes necessary to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/31/2007

KC Johnson is for Obama.

I have already explained why KC's "standard mathematics" is unsound. (See the final three sentences of my middle paragraph).

I don't know whether or not I would have joined Goldwater, Tower, and four other Republicans in voting "No" in 1964, but 21 Democrats did join them.

KC ought to be applauded for his book with Stuart Taylor on the Duke rape case, and for his cri de coeur on behalf of qualified teachers which resulted in his own tenure case. There are too few teachers like KC, even if he is a liberal, and we should love him for the enemies he has made.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/31/2007

Dear Brother Hughes, What an odd way to concede that Democrats supplied 2/3 of the Senate votes necessary to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Are you in favor of it?
It is standard mathematics to project that, at this rate, there will be 134 filibusters in this Congress. Do you have a problem with standard mathematics?
You assume that both George Allen and Conrad Burns were worth saving. Dubious assumptions.
You really *don't* know what KC Johnson would have written under other circumstances. I'm delighted, however, for my colleagues to be reminded that KC Johnson is occasionally attacked by rightwing diehards like yourself.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/31/2007

If we are going to complain about the "Dole-led Republicans" using too many filibusters in the Congress of 1993-1994, it would be fair to mention it was the Dirksen-led GOP Senators who passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964--not the Democrats, who cast only 46 of its 73 aye votes.

But it is premature and inaccurate to talk of 134 "projected" filibusters in the current session, which has a whole year remaining. That figure may be high or low. How can we project potential filibusters which may have died informally, or guess how many subjects were not even broached because of the threat of filibusters? It does not reflect, either, how many cloture montions were called repeatedly in the same debate. The number of cloture montions is not the same as the number of filibusters.

Of course, if the GOP had not wasted its money trying to reelect Lincoln Chafee last year, and used it instead on Conrad Burns and George Allen, we could probably be projecting a new record of filibusters by Harry Reid in the current session! And in that case your article would not have appeared.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/27/2007

KC, For several months, I've thought that there's an important opportunity for a good op-ed on Senate rules governing the filibuster for History News Service. You've certainly got the expertise that I lack for writing an excellent one.

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