“It’s not that the filibuster itself is inherently racist, but it has been the favorite tool of racists. It is the preferred choice of Southern conservatives, in whatever era and whatever party, who are trying to slow down civil rights and trying to deny equal protection for African Americans.” — Princeton University historian Kevin M. Kruse
Unlike the right to vote, there is nothing sacred about the filibuster.
It’s not in the Constitution. It never was part of Framers’ vision for the Senate and is not enshrined in any law.
For the first 141 years of our nation’s history, Senate rules did not provide for a process to end debate and force a vote on a measure. “Filibuster,” derived from the Spanish filibustero — a pirate or plunderer — first was used in the 1850s to describe efforts to prevent Senate action on a bill.
It wasn’t until 1917 that the Senate adopted a rule to allow a two-thirds majority to end a filibuster, a process known as cloture. In 1975 the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 of 100 senators.
Over the past half-century, the Senate has carved out more than 160 exemptions from the filibuster, many of which are in common use, on matters involving trade, foreign policy, defense, budget reconciliation, judicial confirmations, and health care.
But not voting rights. In fact, the primary use of the filibuster in the 20th Century was to block civil rights legislation.
It’s time to dispense with the filibuster — at the very least, with regard to voting rights.
Republicans this week blocked the Senate from taking action on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It was their fourth filibuster of voting rights legislation this year and its second in just two weeks. Just a single Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, was willing to allow the Senate even to begin debating the bill.
The 117th Congress will be remembered for overseeing the systematic dismantling of American democracy and the desecration of our most sacred constitutional right. The racially discriminatory voter suppression that has run rampant through the states is unconscionable; the Senate’s abject failure to contain it is unforgivable.
For most of the 56 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, protecting access to the ballot box was a bipartisan issue. The original bill passed the House and Senate with the support of overwhelming majorities of both Democrats and Republicans. Since then, Congress has reauthorized the special provisions of the Act five times, each time with bipartisan majorities and each time signed by a Republican President. The most recent reauthorization in 2006 passed the Senate unanimously, including the votes of nine current members of the Senate who have consistently blocked debate on voting rights this year: Richard Shelby of Alabama, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Susan Collins of Maine, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Thune of South Dakota and John Cornyn of Texas.
Sen. Cornyn this week defended his vote citing “huge improvements and advances made in minority voting strength.” Texas recently enacted one of the nation’s most restrictive voting laws that specifically target voting methods popular among voters of color and adopted new voting maps that dilute the voting power of diverse communities.
More than 250 new laws in 45 states enacted since the 2020 election will make it harder for 55 million Americans to vote. Even more concerning are the initiatives to subvert elections entirely by stripping local election officials of their authority and granting partisan politicians the power to overturn election results.
These are not “huge improvements.” They are a shameful erosion of democratic principles and a stain on our nation’s soul.
This must end. It must end now. The National Urban League implores every senator to examine his or her heart, to hear the voices of the martyrs who bled and died to claim the right to vote, and to be guided by the better angels of their nature.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.