The Filibuster Was Grounded in Slavery & Now Threatens All Life

Today it’s a convenient shield for cowardly senators to avoid going on the record about their opposition to popular legislation, writes Thom Hartmann. 

Construction of the Capitol dome, Dec. 31, 1857. (Architect of the Capitol/Flickr).

By Thom Hartmann

It’s time to end the filibuster and bring democracy to the U.S. Senate.

The filibuster was invented by “the Grandfather of the Confederacy” John C. Calhoun, and its only purpose is to block legislation that otherwise has broad popular support but is opposed by racists and big corporate special interest groups.

It’s not even in the Constitution; the Founders were horrified by the thought of such a thing, because it allows a 2/5ths minority of senators to block any action by the senate majority.

Sadly, two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, recently blocked the Senate from killing this democracy-crippling anachronism.

Hidden History

The Founding generation were almost universally opposed to anything resembling the filibuster; James Madison fought any such rule right up until his death in 1836.

It is, after all, anti-democratic in that it gives a minority of senators the ability to block any legislation simply by raising their hand or sending a one-sentence note to their colleagues. A single senator can invoke it, and a minority of 41 out of 100 senators can sustain it until legislation dies.

By the 1830s, the institution of slavery was under widespread attack in America. England had outlawed it, northern states were hardening their opinions, and the national debate that erupted a decade earlier with the Missouri Compromise was becoming heated.

Former President John Quincey Adams (1825–1829), after he left the White House, ran for and was elected to the House of Representatives with the main purpose of ending slavery; Congress had passed a law against slavery even being mentioned in debate on the floor and Adams went out of his way to break that law every single day that Congress was in session.

John C. Calhoun had been Adams’ vice president (they were bitter enemies; it was because nobody won a majority in the Electoral College and the election was thrown to the House) and then Andrew Jackson’s vice president. In 1832, he resigned as VP to be appointed to South Carolina’s Senate seat by that state’s governor.

Oil portrait of John C. Calhoun by George Peter Alexander Healy, circa 1845. (Wikimedia Commons)

Once in the Senate, Calhoun invented the filibuster specifically to increase the power of his plantation-owning colleagues and block any sort of anti-slavery legislation. (Calhoun not only defended the right to keep human beings enslaved; in an infamous 1837 floor speech he called slavery “a positive good.”)

Civil Rights Laws Delayed for a Century

And it worked. The filibuster not only kept any anti-slavery legislation from being passed throughout Calhoun’s lifetime, but after Reconstruction collapsed with the Hayes election in 1876 it was turned against Civil Rights legislation.

As historian Adam Jentleson notes, “[F]rom the 87 years between when Reconstruction ended until 1964, the only category of legislation against which the filibuster was deployed to actively stop bills in their tracks was civil rights legislation.”

In 1964 and 1965 Southern conservatives tried to block LBJ’s civil- and voting-rights legislation with a filibuster; President Johnson, however, invoked the death of JFK and mobilized massive nationwide popular support to pressure senators to pull together a successful super-majority and overcome the Southern filibuster. Sadly, such examples are rare.

Now Used by Big Business 

Today the filibuster is used by special interests to protect their own financial interests such as keeping weapons of war on our streets, killing our children in numbers not seen in any other developed country in the world.

For example, after the brutal 2012 slaughter of 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) put together a modest bill to increase the use of background checks to purchase weapons.

Fully 55 senators supported the legislation, as did 80–90 percent of the American public, but Republicans beholden to the gun industry launched a filibuster, killing the legislation by requiring 60 votes for passage.

The filibuster was a useful tool — and excuse for racist senators — to block any sort of civil rights legislation for four generations. Today it’s a convenient shield for cowardly senators to avoid going on the record about their opposition to popular legislation, instead just shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Hey, it takes 60 votes; what can I do?”

Since the 1960s, the filibuster is the favorite tool of well-funded special interests like the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Big Banking to prevent any sort of meaningful action on climate change, labor rights and consumer protections (among other things).

Senate Democrats represent 41 million more American voters than do Senate Republicans, but the minority GOP is today using the filibuster to help out their billionaire donors and the industries that made them rich the same way Southern senators did to keep slavery intact prior to the Civil War.

Modify the Filibuster?

Protester at March for Our Lives gun-safety demonstration, Tucson, March 2018. (Corinna Barnard)

Protester at March for Our Lives gun-safety demonstration, Tucson, March 2018. (Corinna Barnard)

Most Americans think the filibuster requires a senator to stand and talk and talk and talk, and ends when the senator sits down — because most Americans got their information about it from dramatizations like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

If the filibuster can’t be immediately killed, a short-term measure may be to modify the rules around it to actually make it work the way it’s portrayed in the movies. That way, it must eventually end and a majority vote can be held.

It’s been modified many times over the years, after all. Harry Reid oversaw ending the filibuster on federal judges; Mitch McConnell extended that to Supreme Court justices so he could get Trump’s controversial nominees through. At one time it required 66 votes; now it’s 60.

This “stand and speak, and when you sit down it ends” change may well be the thing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he had up his sleeve when interviewed Jan. 25 by Rachael Maddow. It could work.

Call Your Senators

The contemporary filibuster’s open Senate advocates include every single Republican (in the pocket of all the industries listed above, among others) and Democrats Joe Manchin (Big Coal/Oil) and Kyrsten Sinema (Big Banks & Insurance).

If Manchin and Sinema continue to block Democrats’ efforts to end the filibuster to protect their biggest donors, large parts of the Biden agenda are in grave danger. Worse, with the near-certainty it’ll be used to block effective climate legislation, their obstruction threatens all life on Earth.

The office of every U.S. senator can be reached by calling 202–224–3121. Now might be a good time to let your two senators, along with Manchin and Sinema, know your opinion.

Thom Hartmann is America’s No. 1 progressive talk show host & NY Times bestselling author. Thom’s latest project is the “Hidden History” series of books.
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The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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10 comments for “The Filibuster Was Grounded in Slavery & Now Threatens All Life

  1. March 5, 2021 at 11:33

    It is always the mob that worries us; and the power of group think that hovers. Yes slave interests used it as did segregationists, but they ended with the filibuster intact. Observing the cancel culture and cries to restrict “bad” thoughts and acts, do we really want the purer version of democracy which has some similarity with the acts during the French revolution.

    Thankfully, we haven’t been able to overcome what the founders found as bedrock, the prevention of unbridled government power.

  2. Don
    March 5, 2021 at 11:21

    If the filibuster is so dangerous we might as well abandon democracy altogether. Wait, we already have. Never mind.

  3. vinnieoh
    March 4, 2021 at 17:23

    This is a rather drive-by treatment of the subject. For a more complete analysis see Ezra Klein’s Oct. 1 editorial “The Definitive Argument for Abolishing the Filibuster” which was on the Vox website. Same conclusion, but argued very completely, addressing also all the usual arguments made for keeping it (aka all the fears of abolishing it.)

    This alone won’t “fix” the Senate, but it has the potential to make those f#$%ers work for a living, and for their continued existence as Senators.

  4. Charles Vick
    March 3, 2021 at 18:42

    The Fraud Squad could hold up any legislation by withholding their six votes as leverage until Manchin cries uncle. There’s more than one way skin the scoundrels in Congress, unfortunately they are all bought or more concerned with their careers than their constituents.

  5. Jonny James
    March 3, 2021 at 18:30

    The entire Senate should be abolished! It is the US version of the old House of Lords. Ironically, the House of Lords is largely ceremonial in the UK, but in the US it has the most power in our bicameral legislature. We need a unicameral legislature with fully proportional representation (as well as avenues of direct democracy).

    The Senate’s representation is highly disproportional, and has way too much institutional power. The Electoral College must be abolished, as well as legislation passed to ensure that money is not defined as free speech and corporations not have the rights of human beings (overturn Citizens United). However, as we know, it requires an amendment to the constitution, but we at least need to put it in the public discourse and recognize how big of an issue it is. Without getting rid of these barriers to a democratic line of legitimacy, US Democracy Inc. will remain the world’s most expensive PR stunt.
    A Public Relations Democracy facade to cover the ugly face of oligarchy.

    • DH Fabian
      March 3, 2021 at 22:34

      One thing I’ve noticed through the years is that when a Republican is president, all blame for regressive policies goes to the president, while when a Democrat is president, all blame for regressive policies goes to Congress.

  6. Georges Olivier Daudelin
    March 3, 2021 at 17:44

    Tant et aussi longtemps que la constitution et les institutions de Washington ne seront pas totalement rejetées du revers de la main, le fascisme, le racisme, le militarisme, l’affairisme, le cléricalisme et le libéralisme, resteront à demeure dans cet État voyou criminel USA.

  7. John Prehn
    March 3, 2021 at 17:18

    The purpose of Senate has always been to ensure minority rule. Who (else) needs it? We have the House; that’s enough. The Senate must GO, along with the electoral college…and, the Supreme Court. Democracy, however, is way too radical for this country….we will never give it a try…Closes down on too much grifting, our essence. We’re going down and out as a oligarchy, a kakistocracy….

  8. March 3, 2021 at 15:21

    No, Thom, it is NOT the filibuster that threatens all life — IT IS THE MEN WHO CREATED IT WHO THREATEN ALL LIFE!

    We, our small group, have focused on what TYPE of men are ruining the world and found some amazing facts. Interested? See our opening website, below. BTW, you are frequently quoted throughout our sites.

    • DH Fabian
      March 3, 2021 at 22:40

      The men who created the filibuster are long dead. Technically dating back to 1790, the first filibuster of significance came in 1841.

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