- - Wednesday, April 7, 2021

ANALYSIS

The origins of the word filibuster seem to belie any claims that the tool of partisan warfare is a pillar of senatorial greatness, and therefore must be guarded against efforts to eliminate it.

Regardless of where you may stand in the current debate over whether to end the filibuster — the idea has picked up supporters among Democrats who suspect Republicans will effectively thwart most of President Biden’s agenda — it is worth remembering this parliamentary maneuver came about as an accident, according to Princeton historian Sean Wilentz.

And as the use of the filibuster evolved from an infrequent tactic to any obstructionist’s weapon of choice, leaders of both major political parties repeatedly tried to change or kill it, said Wilentz in the latest episode of the History As It Happens podcast. Those efforts came to nothing because they, too, were filibustered.



Filibuster comes from the Spanish word filibustero, or pirate. And the first American filibusterers were not Senators who hijacked legislation, but rogue adventurers and mercenaries who, sometimes with the tacit support of the U.S. government, invaded countries such as Cuba with the aim of spreading slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. Many of the expeditions ended in failure and with the executions of the filibusterers.

These expeditions are mostly forgotten today. The filibuster is now synonymous with legislative tactics.

“In 1805 then-Vice President Aaron Burr, who was under indictment for murder for having shot Alexander Hamilton a year earlier, gave a final farewell speech to the Senate,” said Wilentz. “In that speech he happened to reflect on his time as vice president… and things that could be changed in the Senate,” including “redundant rules.”

One of those procedural rules “permitted a simple majority of voting members to end debate,” as Wilentz explained in an essay about the filibuster’s inglorious past.

Once the Senate eliminated it the following year “with no motive beyond the procedural,” the chamber lacked any means to cut off debate. By the time of the Civil War, Senators had learned they could hold legislation hostage for as long as they could hold the floor.

But not until certain debates over U.S. involvement in the First World War did the chamber adopt its first “cloture rule,” requiring a two-thirds vote to close debate. Today it takes 60 Senators to cut off debate, still a supermajority that is impeding the normal functioning of democracy as foreseen by the Founders, in Wilentz’s view.

“It began as an accident. It turned into something that has spun out of control,” said Wilentz in the podcast interview with host Martin Di Caro.

The filibuster was used by segregationists to block civil rights legislation last century, and today the Senate no longer requires a filibustering lawmaker to actually hold the floor and pontificate.

Abuse of the filibuster so frustrated politicians on both sides of the aisle that, depending on which party held the majority at a given time, then-Senate leaders Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) deployed the so-called nuclear option to can the 60-vote requirement for judicial nominations.

Now, the possibility of eliminating the obstructionist tactic has excited some Democrats while scaring others: What will happen once the shoe is on the other foot and Republicans are in the majority?

To Wilentz, such concerns are overwrought.

Removing the filibuster will simply return majority rule to its proper place. Moreover, the Princeton scholar believes that if Democrats want to pass sweeping bills to expand voting rights before the 2022 midterm elections, they may have no choice but to nix the filibuster.

“We are in an emergency situation right now. If you could find a way to exempt those particular bills from the filibuster, a lot of the [voting restriction] problems we’re facing right now could be overcome,” he said.

For more of Sean Wilentz’s insights about the use and abuse of the filibuster, and the arguments for and against keeping it, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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