An ideal rule for the age of rage? Critics may be making the best argument for keeping the filibuster
In truth, the filibuster is no more racist than any other procedural rule. The irony is that, despite its abusive use in the past, this is arguably the most compelling time for a filibuster rule.
While Democrats and the media have painted anyone supporting the filibuster as anti-democratic, even racist, they overwhelmingly supported the rule when Democrats were in the Senate minority. As a senator, Biden denounced any termination of the filibuster as “disastrous” and declared: “God save us from that fate … [since it] would change this fundamental understanding and unbroken practice of what the Senate is all about.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) previously warned the Senate that it was “on the precipice” of a constitutional crisis as “the checks and balances which have been at the core of this republic are about to be evaporated” by a proposed elimination of the filibuster. Likewise, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) denounced those seeking to eradicate the filibuster as trying to change “the rules in the middle of the game so that they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet.” He added: “If the majority chooses to end the filibuster and if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only become worse.”
Back then, the filibuster was the embodiment of “democratic debate” — and those words were echoed in the same newspapers and on the same television programs that now denounce the rule. When Sinema recently made the same defense of the rule as Biden, Schumer and Obama, she was attacked as mouthing specious, racist or reactionary talking points.
It does not matter that Democrats have used this now racist and undemocratic rule hundreds of times, including filibustering bills 327 times just last year.
In reality, the rule did not originate as a racist device. Indeed, as I have previously written, it is more a “relic” of the Julius Caesar era than the Jim Crow era. In ancient Rome, the filibuster was used to force the Roman senate to hear dissenting voices; Cato the Younger used it to oppose Julius Caesar’s return to Rome and to denounce rampant corruption. It was viewed as protecting minority viewpoints in senate proceedings. In the United States, it can be traced to a procedural argument by former Vice President Aaron Burr to get rid of an automatic end to debate on bills in the early 1800s. It was not created in or for the Jim Crow era — and Cato the Younger was not the junior senator from Alabama.