The Senate: ‘a graveyard of liberal legislation’

Swatting away Mitch McConnell’s bad faith and worse history, Jamelle Bouie schools NYT readers on the filibuster: “an extra-constitutional innovation that lay dormant for a generation after its unintentional creation during the Jefferson administration.” The Senate was supposed to a less efficacious chamber, not a chamber that grinds to a halt. The Constitution contains not one syllable addressing a fifty-nine-vote requirement. Indeed, after that fascinating rapscallion Aaron Burr stumbled upon its existence, it went dormant for decades until, well, you know:

The filibuster as we understand it developed in the 20th century. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called on Senate Democrats to reform the filibuster as a war measure after Republicans successfully filibustered a bill to arm merchant ships. Democrats obliged and created a “cloture” rule to end debate with a two-thirds vote of the chamber. In 1975, the Senate reduced that threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 votes in a 100-member body.

The point of comparison for the Senate as McConnell has shaped it is the middle of the 20th century, when a conservative coalition of Republicans and Dixiecrats made the chamber a graveyard of liberal legislation and social reform. Consensus didn’t matter. Power did. And it wasn’t until liberals wrested power from this coalition — in the House as well as the Senate — that they could take the initiative and begin work on an otherwise popular agenda.

The history of the Senate, from the days of Payne and Webster, Clay and Calhoun, is also a history of its decay, chronicled by Robert Caro in the third volume of his LBJ biography in the most sustained narrative writing of his career; I read it and draw breaths.

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