Arcane rules 

Fifty-two years ago, President John F. Kennedy and House Speaker Sam Rayburn overcame a small minority of obstructionists in Congress and changed the history of American politics.

In 1961, Democrats held 263 seats in the House. With only 174 Republicans with whom to contend, the president and Rayburn should have been able to push through whatever they pleased. But six of the 12-member House Rules Committee had effective veto power on all legislation. The committee of eight Democrats and four Republicans controlled the schedule of the U.S. House. When the committee's two conservative Southern Democrats, Howard Smith of Virginia and William Colmer of Mississippi, banded together with the Republican members — as they did often, especially in the face of civil rights legislation — they could block proposals from reaching the House floor.

Kennedy and Rayburn's solution was to add three new members to the committee, including two younger, more liberal Democrats who would assure the president's domestic agenda could reach the floor. The ensuing fight has been described as the fiercest of the era. Only by expending much political capital did Kennedy and Rayburn prevail. Their victory lost the South to Democrats for a generation and, several years later, helped usher in Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

Last week, the Senate made a similarly arcane change to procedure that could have just as sweeping of an effect on American politics — with progressivism and pain served in similar manner. Led by Majority Leader Harry Reid and with the blessing of President Obama, most Senate Democrats (though not Mark Pryor) voted to deny the minority party the opportunity to block executive and judicial nominations (save the Supreme Court) with a filibuster, which requires a 60-vote supermajority to overcome. The next time the minority uses the filibuster on a significant piece of legislation or a Supreme Court nominee popular within the majority, bet on the procedure dying all together.

In reaction to the news, state Sen. Jason Rapert, the standard bearer for right-wing-nuttery in Arkansas, tweeted, "America, this is tyranny." In fact, the move was a highly democratic corrective. The filibuster isn't in the constitution. It wasn't used until the mid-19th century and remained incredibly rare until the 1970s. Democrats and Republicans were each on the other side of near filibuster showdowns in 2003 and 2005 and many of them are on record supporting what they now oppose (John Boozman in 2005: "The American people are tired of obstructionism").

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell forced the hand of Democrats. Since he became Republican leader, filibusters have gone from a way for the minority to issue a protest in extreme situations to standard procedure. Almost 30 percent of all the cloture motions — cloture is the procedure to break a filibuster — filed in the last 100 years have come under McConnell's watch.

The rule change will obviously come back and bite Democrats eventually, but in the meantime, the Obama administration may actually be able to get some things done. The EPA is in the process of issuing new rules to limit carbon emissions. Much of the administration's financial reform package, Dodd-Frank, hasn't yet been enacted. Both are sure to draw legal challenges and, like most all court cases involving the federal government, they're likely to go the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Now that the filibuster has been curtailed, the president is expected to get three long-delayed nominees to the D.C. circuit confirmed, which will put the court in control of judges nominated by Democratic presidents.

Party polarization broke the practical uses of the filibuster. Without a change, Democrats wouldn't have gotten anything out of the Senate. Moreover, Republicans likely would have ended the filibuster whenever they eventually took back the Senate majority and won the presidency. Why not act now?



Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Most Shared

  • Issue 3: blank check

    Who could object to a constitutional amendment "concerning job creation, job expansion and economic development," which is the condensed title for Issue 3 for Arkansas voters on Nov. 8?
  • Little Rock police kill man downtown

    Little Rock police responding to a disturbance call near Eighth and Sherman Streets about 12:40 a.m. killed a man with a long gun, Police Chief Kenton Buckner said in an early morning meeting with reporters.
  • From the mind of Sol LeWitt: Crystal Bridges 'Loopy Doopy': A correction

    Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is installing Sol Lewitt's 70-foot eye-crosser "Wall Drawing 880: Loopy Doopy," waves of complementary orange and green, on the outside of the Twentieth Century Gallery bridge. You can glimpse painters working on it from Eleven, the museum's restaurant, museum spokeswoman Beth Bobbitt said
  • Ted Suhl loses another bid for new trial; faces stiff sentencing recommendation

    Ted Suhl, the former operator of residential and out-patient mental health services, has lost a second bid to get a new trial on his conviction for paying bribes to influence state Human Services Department policies. Set for sentencing Thursday, Suhl faces a government request for a sentence up to almost 20 years. He argues for no more than 33 months.
  • Football and foster kids

    It took a football stadium to lay bare Republican budget hypocrisy in Arkansas.

Latest in Editorials

  • The end of an era

    We're sad to report that Doug Smith has decided to retire. Though he's been listed as an associate editor on our masthead for the last 22 years, he has in fact been the conscience of the Arkansas Times. He has written all but a handful of our unsigned editorials since we introduced an opinion page in 1992.
    • May 8, 2014
  • A stand for equality

    Last week, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel became the first elected statewide official to express support for same-sex marriage. His announcement came days before Circuit Judge Chris Piazza is expected to rule on a challenge to the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Soon after, a federal challenge of the law is expected to move forward. McDaniel has pledged to "zealously" defend the Arkansas Constitution but said he wanted the public to know where he stood.
    • May 8, 2014
  • Same old, same old

    Remarking as we were on the dreariness of this year's election campaigns, we failed to pay sufficient tribute to the NRA, one of the most unsavory and, in its predictability, dullest of the biennial participants in the passing political parade.
    • May 1, 2014
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

Jodi Morris's lifelong ties to the National Park Service

Jodi Morris's lifelong ties to the National Park Service

"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Event Calendar

« »


2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31  

Most Viewed

  • The politics of opportunity

    Are you sick of the election yet? One thing that seems certain is that our politics remain as hyperpartisan and dysfunctional as ever. I may be naive, but I think Arkansas has an opportunity to help lead the country back toward pragmatic progress on the issues that will make our families and communities stronger.

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Confrontation vs. innovation

    • Do you need Personal Loan? Business Cash Loan? Unsecured Loan Fast and Simple Loan? Quick…

    • on October 28, 2016
  • Re: Football and foster kids

    • I think Bart Hester just hates tax dollars being spent anywhere for anything.

    • on October 27, 2016
  • Re: The politics of opportunity

    • Maybe we need to revive a grassroots movement to have (1) nonpartisan redistricting (2)Top two…

    • on October 27, 2016

© 2016 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation