Friday, April 29, 2005

BU History Prof.: Remove the Filibuster

Boston U. History professor Julian E. Zelizeris, author of On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1945-2000, has written a piece published today in the Providence Journal explaining his belief that ending the filibuster would align the Senate with the "21st-Century understandings of democracy." He supports his call with [surprise] some history.
Late in the 1950s, liberal giants in both parties, such as Hubert H. Humphrey (D.-Minn.), Jacob K. Javits (R.-N.Y.), Paul H. Douglas (D-.Ill.) and Joseph S. Clark (D.-Pa.) made filibuster reform a top priority. It became so important that civil-rights organizations in the 1950s placed committee and filibuster reform at the top of their political agenda. The NAACP listed filibuster reform as important as ending lynching.

This struggle culminated in 1975, when Republican Vice President Nelson Rockefeller intervened in Senate deliberations and let the reform pass. Although reformers did not obtain a strictly majoritarian system, senators made it easier to end a filibuster by requiring that three-fifths, rather than two-thirds, of the Senate was needed to obtain cloture (the process by which a filibuster is ended).

Opponents warned that the change would bring havoc to the institution. Reformers praised the change. A few liberal voices were disappointed that the filibuster survived at all.

Today's Democrats can learn from this older generation of liberals in the 1950s and 1960s who argued that the filibuster was fundamentally anti-democratic, especially since the Constitution, undemocratically, already granted small and large states equal representation in the Senate.

Humphrey enraged Southern conservatives by championing civil rights and legislative reform. He went so far as to call the "undemocratic" filibuster "evil." In the 1950s, the filibuster was the ultimate symbol of how procedure blocked action on civil rights. Writing for The New Republic, Senator Douglas explained that filibuster reform may seem to be "a barren and arid matter of parliamentary procedure. It involves, however, the whole question as to whether Congress will ever be able to pass civil-rights legislation."

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