The dome of the U.S. Capitol building.
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The Filibuster: A Jim Crow Era Rule in Modern Times

The filibuster is a major threat to U.S. democracy. Without so much as a word, any senator who objects to a bill has the power to completely derail the bill’s progression until 60 senate members vote for the delay. The continual existence of the filibuster impedes change, preventing necessary reforms and justice from reaching the most vulnerable. It has prevented raising the minimum wage and gun violence reform and has historically blocked civil rights legislation. Currently, discussions on eliminating the filibuster are back in the public purview as a bill to codify Roe v. Wade failed to pass the Senate (CNN). We have discussed the repercussions if Roe v. Wade is struck down and its ripple effects beyond access to safe abortions and reproductive health. When our fundamental rights, health, and safety are at risk, it’s essential to examine how the systems in place prevent progress and are upheld by racist, post-slavery and Jim Crow era rules. 

TAKE ACTION

• Sign the fixoursenate.org petition demanding that the filibuster be abolished.

Research and vote for representatives who are committed to abolishing the filibuster. 

• Consider: What laws do you know that were made possible by the filibuster? How do they impact your life today? The lives of those different than you?

According to the U.S. Senate, a filibuster is designed to prolong debate and delay or prevent a vote on a bill, resolution, amendment, or other debatable question (United States Senate). When a filibuster is enacted, the amount of votes needed to pass the legislation automatically rises from the original majority of 51to a supermajority of three-fifths or 60 votes. It becomes impossible to garner the remaining votes needed to pass the supermajority on bills where support is already limited. The filibuster was first introduced in the mid-19th century as a tool to unfairly uphold the institution of slavery when leaders were beginning to realize the need to abolish it (NPR). Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to former Democratic leader Harry Reid from 2010 to 2017, credits John C. Calhoun as the father of the modern filibuster. Calhoun fought hard to defend southern enslavers by using filibusters, which led to the derailing of civil rights legislation.

The U.S. democratic system was founded on racism. It has never been an ally for people of color. However, the extent to which this applies is more apparent as you dive into the structure of American politics. From the contradictory verbiage in the Declaration of Independence to the gerrymandering of cities, towns, and counties, there is no place for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in the U.S. government. Today, the filibuster’s racist structure of politics speaks louder that it is a tool used to obstruct the rights of marginalized people. 

Since 1917, there have been more than 2,000 filibusters, with more than half of them occurring in the past 12 years (Brennan Center). Of the 30 measures blocked by filibusters from 1917 to 1994, half of them were regarding civil rights issues, including “anti-lynch­ing bills, the Civil Rights Act of 1957; and legis­la­tion that would have prohib­ited poll taxes and outlawed discrim­in­a­tion in employ­ment, hous­ing, and voting.” In 2020, while President Obama called on Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act, he referred to the filibuster as a “Jim Crow relic,” as it has been a barrier to passing voting rights (Washington Post). 

Not only is the majority vulnerable, but they are also limited in passing legislation essential to a functioning democracy. Following the election of Senators Jon Ossoff and Rafael Warnock, an onslaught of voter suppression laws was presented by Senate republicans in crucial Southern and swing states. In the 2020 presidential election, the power of the Southern states was evident; Black and Brown voters are unstoppable when they join together and aren’t disenfranchised (The Atlantic). Without reform of the filibuster, it’s easily possible for these laws to pass and cause irrevocable harm to the democratic process. As imminent as the threat may seem, President Biden does not appear to have the same urgency as Democratic senators or top aides who want to see reform happen as soon as possible. “He needs time” has been the consensus instead of moving forward with diligent speed (Politico).

No progressive legislation will pass as long as the filibuster is considered fair game in our democratic system. As it has been used to block gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, Obamacare expansion, and numerous civil rights bills, there is no hope for forwarding movement as long as any one senator can waste precious time either through silence or procrastination. There’s a reason the founding fathers did not support the filibuster. They had the forethought to understand the danger it could cause, especially in the supermajority (Indivisible). It can’t be OK for the minority to essentially throw a tantrum whenever something isn’t going their way. We need to restructure the balance of power where it protects the wishes and guarantees the needs of the people are met. A reality where citizens can advocate for change and see it enacted is possible. But we move further away from that reality the longer the filibuster remains. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• The filibuster has always been a racist means of hindering progress.

• If abolished, the minority will no longer have to power to strip away the rights of the vast majority of Americans.

• The filibuster often advances the desires of those who seek to abuse power.

*This piece was originally published on 3/24/2021. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 5/13/22.

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