Adam Jentleson has written a valuable book about the current crisis of the U. S. Senate and how that crisis undermines democracy.
Jentleson is a former deputy chief of staff to U.S. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. Jentleson’s book “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy” has just come out in paperback. It could not be more timely.
“Kill Switch” sets the record straight about the filibuster.
Jentleson describes how the filibuster functions as an anti-democratic procedure designed to block the will of the majority. It now requires a “supermajority” of 60 of the Senate’s 100 members to end debate and proceed to the final vote on a measure.
Jentleson points out that the filibuster was not part of the U.S. Constitution when it was adopted. It is a tactic of disruption devised decades after the Constitution was ratified. In 1841, U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina organized other slave-state senators to oppose a bank bill which would have hurt the slave-owners’ pocketbooks. (Calhoun was the South’s foremost defender of slavery. He once called slavery “a positive good” in a speech in the Senate.)
In plain language, Jentleson explains the extraordinary damage that the filibuster has done over the years:
“From the 1920s through the 1940s, legislation to end poll taxes, combat lynching, and roll back employment discrimination possessed everything bills had previously needed to become law. They were passed by majorities in the House of Representatives, supported by majorities in the Senate, and backed by presidents of both parties. … But for decades before [the 1957 Civil Rights Act] passed, in the face of majority support, southern senators’ obstructionist innovations succeeded in blocking every civil rights bill that came before the nation.”
They were blocked with the filibuster.
Jentleson continues: “From its inception to today, the filibuster has mainly served to empower a minority of predominantly white conservatives to override our democratic system when they found themselves outnumbered, blocking progress that threatened their power, their way of life, and the priorities of their wealthy benefactors, from the slaveholders of the nineteenth century to the conservative billionaires of today. From John Calhoun … to Richard Russell, the post-World War II puppet master of the Senate who swore that ‘any southern white man worth a pinch of salt would give his all to maintain white supremacy,’ to Mitch McConnell in our own time … southern senators invented the filibuster, strengthened it, and developed alternative histories to justify it.”
Over the years, the toxic, anti-democratic character of the filibuster has only gotten worse. Originally, a senator had to actually be present on the Senate floor for hours in order to carry out a filibuster. Today, senators simply have to indicate their willingness to debate. This triggers a requirement that three-fifths of the Senate – 60 members – must vote to cut off debate in order for the Senate to proceed to a final vote. This means that a mere 41 senators can block any measure whatsoever if they act in unison. This is the case even if those 41 senators represent the 21 smallest states in the Union – states which amount to only 11 percent of the total population of the United States.
A filibuster stopped passage of the anti-lynching bill of 1922. Another stopped the anti-poll tax bill in 1942. A third stopped Congress from passing an amendment to abolish the Electoral College in 1970.
In 1841, one of the participants in the very first Senate filibuster cheerfully recounted the pro-slavery senators’ attack on their opponents in graphic terms. “We kept their measures upon the anvil, and hammered them continually,” gloated Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. “We impaled them against the wall, and stabbed them incessantly.”
Jentleson’s informative book makes a very good case for the argument that ever since 1841, the filibuster has been used to stab American democracy incessantly – and that it’s time to abolish this shabby parliamentary trick.
Anyone concerned about current events will benefit from reading this book!
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An insider’s account of how politicians representing a radical minority of Americans are using “the greatest deliberative body in the world” to hijack our democracy.
Every major decision governing our diverse, majority-female, and increasingly liberal country bears the stamp of the US Senate, yet the Senate allows an almost exclusively White, predominantly male, and radically conservative minority of the American electorate to impose its will on the rest of us. How did we get to this point?
In Kill Switch, Adam Jentleson argues that shifting demographics alone cannot explain how Mitch McConnell harnessed the Senate and turned it into a powerful weapon of minority rule. As Jentleson shows, since the 1950s, a free-flowing body of relative equals has devolved into a rigidly hierarchical, polarized institution, with both Democrats and Republicans to blame. The current GOP has merely used the methods pioneered by its predecessors though to newly extreme ends. In a work for fans of How Democracies Die and even Master of the Senate, Jentleson makes clear that, without a reevaluation of Senate practices – starting with ending the filibuster – we face the prospect of permanent minority rule in America.