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Albert Parker

Democrats and Republicans
Combine to Save Filibuster

(7 February 1949)

From The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 6, 7 February 1949, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Filibustering must be outlawed in the U.S. Senate if civil rights legislation is to be passed, but both capitalist parties are united in opposing any change in rules that would really bar filibusters. That is the sum and: substance of the hearings by the Senate Rules Committee, which were closed Feb. 1.

The Senate is often described as the “last wholly free forum” in the world, the “greatest legislative body” in history, and so on. But the truth is that in this “chamber of democracy” the majority of the members generally cannot even vote on a measure without the consent of the minority.

Thus the Southern minority, usually abetted by non-Southerners of both parties, has for decades blocked a vote on legislation to punish lynching, end the poll tax, etc., by talking or threatening to talk indefinitely until the majority agreed riot to consider the legislation. The most elementary concept of democracy – that which the majority should rule – gives way to unbrindled minority rule, masquerading under the name of “freedom of speech.”

The indignation of the people, repeatedly frustrated by this travesty of democracy from securing the legislation they want, has compelled the 81st Congress to at least make some gestures in the direction of correcting the situation. But that’s all they have been – gestures.

According to the present rules, it is possible to get closure (close of debate) in the Senate by a two-thirds vote. But this has been interpreted in practice to apply only to close of debate on a pending “measure” and not on a motion to bring up a measure. Thus if someone makes a motion to bring up an FEPC bill, a filibuster cannot be stopped even by two-thirds vote. Under those circumstances the Senate could never get to consideration of the FEPC bill itself (where a two-thirds vote could bring about closure).

The Senate Rules Committee held an open hearing on the problem, at which only Senators could testify. The proposal to amend the rules so that a majority could end debate on any matter, motion as well as measure, was never even discussed seriously. Most non-Southern Senators don’t favor such a “radical” move because they feel that some day they too might be in a position where they wouldn’t want the majority to rule.

Aside from this consideration, most Republicans are leery of the idea of closure by majority vote because they are hoping sooner or later in the present session to cement an alliance with the Southern Democrats and don’t want to offend them too much at this point.

As for the Democrats, NAACP Secretary Walter White, an ardent Trumanite, was compelled to send Truman and Barkley telegrams last week complaining about “the strange apathy and silence of Democrats during hearings on amendment of Senate rules ... Not one Democrat has as yet fought for or even spoken out to end filibusters.”

The Southern Democrats, acting as though the Dixiecrats had’ won the election, were arrogant as ever, making threats to tie up all business if they did not have their way. Stennis of Mississippi had the effrontery to make two proposals in the guise of “concessions” – first, to permit closure by majority vote on measures having to do with foreign policy only; and second, to permit closure at any time, on any issue, if 86 of the 96 Senators favored it. The surprising thing is that some non-Southern Senators seemed to give favorable attention to these as “compromises!”

The Senate committee is preparing the following proposition: To permit closure at any point when two-thirds of the Senate approves. The alibi will be: “That’s the best we can get under the present circumstances.”

But the Senate’s best is not good enough. Since it will riot prevent filibusters by the Southern Senators, minority rule will continue to obstruct action on civil rights legislation. On the whole, despite blustering, the Southern Democrats will, accept such a “compromise” because it won’t hamper their power.

And that’s why the workers and Negroes cannot and should riot accept this proposition either. To prevent filibustering in general, the Senate will have to face, meet and defeat a filibuster to prevent the abolition of filibustering. The sooner this is done, the better. The sooner it is begun, the sooner it will be finished. If the Senate is serious, it can smash such a filibuster and amend the rules to make them impossible in the future.

The Southern Democrats would rally all their energy and forces for such a fight, but that would only make their defeat all the more conclusive. And their defeat would be certain because the dramatic tie-up of all business in the Senate would result in such an outcry from the masses – in the South as well as the North – that even the Bourbons would have to give heed and to back track.

Filibustering can be smashed but only if its opponents in the Senate really want to do it. Neither capitalist party wants to. That’s why, side by side with the struggle for democratic rule in the Senate and for civil rights throughout the nation, must go the struggle for the formation of an independent Labor Party.

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