No matter what we look like or who we vote for, most of us believe that our elected leaders should represent our interests and enact our priorities. But for decades, a handful of extremist Senators have exploited the filibuster, a loophole to block legislation that the majority of Americans support like economic relief, raising the minimum wage, background checks for guns, and improving our infrastructure. By eliminating the filibuster, we can ensure our leaders govern in our name and deliver what Americans need for our families.
Although first proposed by Aaron Burr in 1803, the modern filibuster has been used by racist Senators to block civil rights legislation. We call on the U.S. Senate to eliminate the filibuster as a weapon that a minority of senators can use to overturn the will of the majority and prevent the For the People Act and other legislation from even getting an up-or-down vote.
The crisis facing our democracy couldn’t be more real and addressing it couldn’t be more urgent. In March, Georgia Republicans passed legislation that will restrict voting access, including blatant attempts to specifically target and suppress the Black vote. Similar legislation has been introduced around the country.
The Brennan Center reports that as of Feb. 19, 2021, “legislators in 43 states have carried over, pre-filed, or introduced more than 250 bills that would make it harder to vote — over seven times the number of restrictive bills as compared to roughly this time last year. These bills primarily seek to limit mail voting and impose stricter voter ID requirements.” The Washington Post notes the “measures are likely to disproportionately affect those in cities and Black voters in particular.”
This should not be a partisan issue. Wide majorities of Americans including Republicans and independents support the For the People Act in poll after poll.
We also know that the similarly popular American Rescue Plan Act only passed because it was exempt from the partisan filibuster and could advance with a simple majority. The filibuster prevents President Biden and Senate Democrats from acting on the will of the American people. If Minority Leader McConnell can use the filibuster as a weapon to keep our democracy weakened, the For the People Act will not become law.
The filibuster has a long history of being used to block voting rights, civil rights, and democracy-protecting bills like the For the People Act. In fact, in the modern era of the Senate, this was the filibuster’s primary purpose.
The filibuster prevented the passage of over 200 anti-lynching bills over the years. For the 87 years between the end of Reconstruction and the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the filibuster prevented civil rights bills from passing – including several civil rights bills that had majority support in the House, majority support in the Senate and support from presidents of both parties.
Until 1964, civil rights bills were the only category of bills routinely stopped by the filibuster. Even the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in American history, was blocked for more than two months by white supremacists Richard Russell, Robert Byrd, William Fulbright, Sam Ervin, and Strom Thurmond before the filibuster was finally broken. This was the first time that cloture had ever been successfully invoked to bring up a vote on civil rights legislation.
But the attempts at filibustering civil rights legislation did not end there. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was also delayed by the filibuster, as was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its extension in 1970.
In his case for eliminating the filibuster, columnist Ezra Klein notes that “filibusters were rare in the mid-century Senate, but when they happened, it was primarily for one purpose: the preservation of racial segregation, hierarchy, and violence in the South.”
President Barack Obama highlighted this fact last year in his powerful eulogy for Representative John Lewis at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church when he spoke of the need to build on Representative Lewis’s legacy and continue his work fighting for civil rights, voting rights, and racial justice. “If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” said President Obama.
We agree with President Obama that the filibuster is a “Jim Crow relic” that should not be allowed to stop the For the People Act from becoming law. We agree with President Biden that “democracy is having a hard time functioning” and the Senate must take action.
Senate Democrats will soon face a choice: Protect our democracy and pass the For the People Act or protect the filibuster – an outdated and abused “Jim Crow relic” that deserves to be tossed into the dustbin of history.
We strongly urge the Senate Democratic caucus to do the right thing and not allow the filibuster to once again stand in the way of civil rights, voting rights, racial justice, and the strengthening of our democracy.
The Equal Justice Society is a partner of the Fix Our Senate (fixoursenate.org) campaign.