Here is Zack Beauchamp at VOX:
The question of what to do about the filibuster — the once-arcane Senate rule that creates a de facto 60-vote threshold for major legislation — is arguably the most important topic in Washington, DC, right now. It is the main thing blocking Senate Democrats from approving President Joe Biden’s sweeping policy agenda on party lines; as such, it has become a subject of fierce partisan (and intraparty) dispute.
Most recently, this debate has centered on racism in the filibuster’s history.
Prominent Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA),have argued that the filibuster has been a tool used by racists to protect white supremacy. In a Tuesday floor speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell denied this entirely — accusing Democrats of lying about history for political purposes.
“These talking points are an effort to use the terrible history of racism to justify a partisan power grab in the present,” McConnell said.
So why do some believe the filibuster is racist?
What’s not especially controversial among scholars is that the modern filibuster is inextricably bound up with Jim Crow.
“It’s been a tool used overwhelmingly by racists,” says Kevin Kruse, a historian of race and American politics at Princeton University.
In 1917, the Senate finally decided to reform the filibuster, adding a provision that would allow two-thirds of senators to vote on a “cloture” motion that would end debate — interrupting an individual senator who won’t stop talking.
This provision, called Rule 22, was designed to make filibustering harder. But it actually had the opposite effect: It was now possible for a minority of senators to block bills by voting down cloture motions. This is how the filibuster works today (albeit with a three-fifths threshold for cloture rather than the original two-thirds, thanks to a 1975 reform).
The defenders of Jim Crow pioneered this new filibuster, successfully deploying it again and again to block civil rights bills. Richard Russell, a leading filibuster practitioner and staunch segregationist, said in 1949 that “nobody mentions any other legislation in connection with it.”
Two political scientists, Sarah Binder and Steven Smith, identified every bill between 1917 and 1994 that they believe failed purely because of the filibuster. Among these, half were civil rights bills, including anti-lynching bills proposed in 1922 and 1935.
They also found that the senators’ view on filibuster reforms was tightly linked to their view on civil rights: Pro-reform senators tended to support civil rights bills, while anti-reform legislators opposed them.
“In three-quarters of the reform efforts, senators’ positions on civil rights shaped their votes on reform — even after taking account of other forces that might influence their votes,” Binder writes in the Washington Post. “Only after senators defeated civil rights filibusters in the 1960s did attitudes toward rule reform become less tied to attitudes on civil rights.”
So while the early republic’s “talking filibuster” may not have had racist origins, the modern filibuster — the one that allows Mitch McConnell to impose a 60-vote requirement on anything Biden and Democrats propose — clearly does.
Read the entire piece here.