For nearly a month, Mitch McConnell and his Senate Republicans have waged the parliamentary equivalent of a guerrilla war. Having lost the Georgia runoffs and with them the Senate, McConnell has still managed to stymie formal reorganization of the chamber. In an already sulfurous political landscape, the filibuster – the need for super-majorities of 60 votes to pass legislation – looms once again as a flashpoint.
In other words, Adam Jentleson’s book is perfectly timed and aptly subtitled. Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy is an authoritative and well-documented plea for abolishing a 19th-century relic used to thwart the majority’s agenda.
As Jentleson makes clear, the filibuster was first wielded by an agrarian and slave-holding south in opposition to the north’s burgeoning manufacturing economy – and modernity itself. A century on, in the 1960s, the filibuster became synonymous with Jim Crow, segregation and the malignant doctrine of separate but equal.
A 54-day filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act refocused the nation on the jagged legacy of slavery, a full 101 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In a century and a half, so much and so little had changed.
In Jentleson’s telling, John Calhoun stands as progenitor of the filibuster. As a senator from South Carolina in the 1840s, he sought to gag voices supporting the abolition of slavery. Constricting debate was one way to do it. Calhoun had also been vice-president to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He saw slavery as more than just an evil to be tolerated. As Jentleson notes, to Calhoun, slavery was “a good. A positive good.”
Calhoun also believed states could secede from the union. For that, he earned the ire of Jackson, a fellow slave-owner. Jackson reportedly said: “John Calhoun, if you secede from my nation, I will secede your head from the rest of your body.” Old Hickory was an ex-general as well as a president.
Jentleson draws a line from Calhoun to McConnell via Richard Russell, a segregationist Georgia senator and Democrat who served from 1933 to 1971. Russell once said: “Any southern white man worth a pinch of salt would give his all to maintain white supremacy.” One of the Senate’s three office buildings is named after him.
As for the Senate’s current minority leader, Kill Switch reminds the reader of an earlier McConnell quote: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” A dubious distinction, but one Donald Trump would instead come to hold.
Jentleson is not a dispassionate observer. An avowed Democrat, he was once deputy chief of staff to Harry Reid. As Democratic leader in the Senate for a decade, Reid, an ex-boxer from Nevada, frequently sparred with McConnell. Reid’s legacy includes the Affordable Care Act and scrapping the filibuster for nominations to lower federal courts and the executive branch.
Picking up where Reid left off, McConnell ended the filibuster for supreme court confirmations. Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett have him to thank for their jobs, not just Trump.
“With the flick of a wrist,” Jentleson writes, McConnell had gone “nuclear himself”.
These days, the author hangs his hat at Democracy Forward, a political non-profit chaired by a Democratic super-lawyer, Marc Elias, which includes on its board John Podesta, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama White Houses. Ron Klain, now Joe Biden’s chief of staff, was once treasurer. The group’s targets have included Ivanka Trump and her alleged ethics violations.
Kill Switch can become myopic when it points the finger elsewhere. For example, the book takes Republicans to task for attempting in 2013 to block the confirmation of Mel Watt, a longtime North Carolina congressman, to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), a financial regulator. But Jentleson makes no mention of Watt’s lapses.
Watt sought to slash funding for the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) – after it cleared him over allegations he diluted consumer protection legislation in exchange for campaign contributions. For his efforts, the liberal-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington branded Watt’s conduct “disgraceful”.
Jentleson can also make too much out of race and ethnicity, interconnected realms strewn with pitfalls and landmines. He asserts that of the Senate’s current members of color, only two are Republican: Tim Scott of South Carolina, an African American, and Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents came from Cuba. But Rubio self-identifies as both white and Hispanic.
In the beginning, senators relied on the filibuster to block civil rights and labor legislation. Now it’s the new normal, wielded by Democrats and Republicans alike. Not much legislating gets done. When the Republican party is home to a congresswoman who muses about Jewish laser beams deployed to “clear space or something for high speed rail”, as a colleague put it, finding common ground is unlikely.
Whether the filibuster is abolished or modified remains to be seen. Although only a simple majority is needed to end it, it appears safe for now. Two Democrats have voiced opposition to changing the rules and the president is OK with the status quo.
If the Democrats can bypass the filibuster through reconciliation, a process used for budgeting that relies upon a simple majority, calls to end the filibuster will likely soften. If not, expect the filibuster to remain front and center heading into the 2022 midterms. Keep Kill Switch close at hand.