Guest column: The filibuster and the elephant in the room

·4 min read
Tony Choate
Tony Choate

The elephant in the room became a cliché because most of us are very good at avoiding obvious and important issues that make us uncomfortable.

In America, we are very good at avoiding the issue of racial discrimination when discussing issues of governance and majority rule.

While the United States Constitution was established to put us on the road to a more perfect Union, racial discrimination has been the elephant in the room throughout our journey.

There is a real, enduring, and mostly unmentioned tension between the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the reality of government in the United States.

As they declared their intention to become an independent nation, our founders clearly stated that all men are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights.

They also made clear in the Declaration of Independence that the primary purpose of government is to secure these rights for all.

Nevertheless, the Constitution established racial discrimination as an unfortunate and enduring legacy of government in our nation.

Forming a more perfect Union and establishing justice are the first two goals mentioned in the preamble outlining the reasons for establishing our Constitution.

Perhaps the founders acknowledged a more perfect Union as a goal because the document forming the Union approved of slavery in the three-fifths compromise.

Called the three-fifths compromise because it settled a dispute between slave states and free states, in reality, the agreement compromised on basic human rights by counting enslaved blacks as three-fifths of a human being. Beyond that, the compromise rewarded southern states with more representation in Congress based on the number of human beings they owned.

Approving of slavery and giving outsized political power to slavery hardly seems to be a recipe for a more perfect Union, or to “secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

While America fought a Civil War to end slavery, racial discrimination continues. Laws and Supreme Court decisions established government policy of separate rules for citizens based on race.

Those laws and court rulings helped establish a complex and stealthy system of racial hierarchy that continues working to enforce separation and discrimination based on race today.

The filibuster is a prime example of that system, as it is commonly cited as an example of a rule designed to defend the rights of the minority.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Since the modern version of the filibuster was introduced in 1917, it has been a primary tool to block civil rights and voting rights legislation.

That century-long trend continued recently as 52 United States Senators voted to reject democratic principles and retain minority rule in their own institution.

It is interesting that Senators resorted to minority rule in their institution to block legislation designed to promote majority rule in America.

Constitutional scholar Dan T. Coenen is among those who have made a very strong legal case that the filibuster is unconstitutional.

His extensive legal arguments regarding the details of the filibuster lead to the following common-sense and easy to understand conclusion, “the Senate must engage in ordinary lawmaking by way of majority vote and cannot alter that requirement by way of rulemaking.”

Those arguing in favor of the filibuster and minority rule went to great lengths to avoid the elephant in the room.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin stood in front of a poster featuring an outright lie as he argued in favor of retaining the undemocratic and unconstitutional senate rule allowing a minority of 40 senators to block legislation.

While his propaganda poster stated, “The United States Senate has never been able to end debate with a simple majority,” the truth is Republicans ended the filibuster rule regarding Supreme Court Nominees in 2017.

It is interesting that Manchin would conveniently forget casting the fifty-first vote to approve Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

The use of the filibuster to block civil rights legislation is one of many examples of the tension between ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the reality of government in the United States.

Of the legislation that failed due to the filibuster between 1917 and 1994, evidence indicates fully half of those were civil rights bills. It brings more clarity to the issue hen one understands the filibuster was used to block anti-lynching bills in 1922 and 1935.

Use of the filibuster to block voting rights protections legislation marks another obstacle on our path toward a more perfect union.

When President Biden dared to ask whether senators want to be on the side of civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. or avowed segregationist George Wallace, his question was met with outrage.

Nevertheless, if we want to achieve a more perfect Union, we must deal with the elephant in the room.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Ardmoreite: Guest column: The filibuster and the elephant in the room

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