Obama: The Filibuster is a “Jim Crow Relic”Breaking News
tags: filibuster, Senate
Former President Barack Obama delivered a passionate and deeply political tribute to the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) at Lewis’s funeral service on Thursday. Lewis was one of the nation’s foremost civil rights leaders beginning in the 1960s, and Obama spoke of how even as a very young man, Lewis endured beatings and other violence to advance the cause of voting rights for Black Americans.
Obama called for legislation restoring the Voting Rights Act, much of which was gutted by the Supreme Court’s decisions in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and Abbott v. Perez (2018). He also endorsed other democratic reforms, including an end to partisan gerrymandering, extending statehood to Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, and making Election Day a national holiday.
And then he called upon the Senate to remove an obstacle that has consistently stood in the way of civil rights legislation throughout American history.
“If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” said Obama.
The filibuster typically allows a bloc of 41 senators to prevent legislation from passing, and Republican filibusters stymied much of Obama’s policy agenda during his presidency.
The filibuster itself predates Jim Crow and was created entirely by accident. In 1805, shortly after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Vice President Aaron Burr returned to the Senate to deliver a farewell speech and suggested that the Senate make changes to its rules. Burr proposed eliminating the “previous question motion,” a process that was rarely used prior to his speech, and the Senate followed Burr’s advice in 1806.
But the previous question motion was hardly superfluous. Indeed, this motion was the only process allowing the Senate to cut off debate among members. No one recognized Burr’s error for 35 years — until 1841, when the first filibuster occurred. Without a way to end debate, rogue senators could delay Senate action indefinitely by insisting on “debating” a proposal forever.
If Republicans were to use the filibuster to stop legislation expanding voting rights, they would join a long and inglorious tradition of illiberal senators filibustering civil rights legislation. From 1875 until 1957, Congress did not enact a single civil rights bill, even as Jim Crow flourished in the South.
Congress could not even pass civil rights legislation that enjoyed majority support. Between the end of World War II and 1957, when a modest bill finally became law, the House passed five civil rights bills. But white supremacist senators were able to block each of these five bills using the filibuster.
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