Dear Senator _______________:
My name is Erika Maye and I am Deputy Senior Campaigns Director for Criminal Justice and Democracy at Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization with more than 7 million members. I am writing on behalf of our staff and our members, to ask that you support the return of majority rule to the Senate by pledging to restore the talking filibuster and lower the threshold on cloture votes in the Senate.
The principles of a governing majority were written into this country’s founding document. In fact, the framers of the Constitution repeatedly warned against the instinct to govern through supermajority. In Federalist No. 22, Alexander Hamilton writes “What at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison.” He warns that forcing the country to govern by supermajority will eventually “destroy the energy of the government, and substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”1 While they certainly believed in principled debate, the framers knew that requiring a supermajority to pass bills could hamper the country’s ability to respond to crisis and would allow a small bloc of ideologically-driven legislators to, in effect, take over the entire legislative body.
Ultimately, these warnings would go unheeded leading to a long campaign by white supremacist Senators to block most pieces of Civil Rights legislation for the past century.
The history of the filibuster is inextricably linked to the history of slavery and white supremacy. It was first used by John C. Calhoun to delay votes on bills that threatened the power of slave states — including an effort to stop Oregon from establishing itself as a free state.2 Calhoun created the playbook of white supremacist obstructionism, but it would not be until Reconstruction that white supremacists would have a mechanism that would allow them to block every piece of civil rights legislation for decades. The introduction of Rule 22 and the supermajority threshold for cloture votes in 1917 provided that mechanism for the bloc of white supremacists Senators from the South.3 The rule was quickly weaponized by white supremacists Senators who distorted the meaning of “unlimited debate” to block anti-lynching bills in 19224, 19385, and 19406 and to rebuff challenges to the poll tax in 19427 and 19448. Each of these bills were passed by the House and were supported by a majority of Senators, but were filibustered and could not reach the cloture threshold — leaving Black people vulnerable to voter suppression and without any federal recourse to punish lynch mobs who perpetrated racist violence.
Today’s Senators represent an increasingly polarized electorate. Not only are voters becoming more ideological in their political beliefs9, they are becoming increasingly more personal in their contempt for the opposing political party.10 This growing polarization has fueled gridlock in the Senate for more than a decade. The Senate was created to be a deliberative body, but today, most bills are pushed to the side without substantive debate, and without much effort to compromise. Disappointingly, in this time of divisive politics, it is hard to imagine a Senate which would work together to pass environmental protections, tax relief for the middle class, or large investments in infrastructure. In this new administration, Congress must find a path forward to draft, debate, and, ultimately, enact legislation that furthers democracy and responds to the needs of our nation. The current cloture threshold of 60 votes does not ensure bipartisanship, it severely limits it by imposing an incredibly high benchmark. It renders useless bipartisan agreements that cannot secure support from a Senate supermajority. An amendment to the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013 would have required background checks before the purchase of firearms11; the DREAM Act would have protected undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United
States since childhood12; and the DISCLOSE Act could have provided greater campaign finance transparency13. All of these bipartisan measures were blocked by the supermajority cloture threshold.
The obstructionists who use the filibuster don’t want to extend debate; they want to kill bills. The Senate is routinely asked to pass legislation on issues where there is a real divide, and where there may be no path to enactment under a supermajority. The majority party can no longer abdicate its responsibility to govern, it must restore the right to majority rule.
The disingenuous call for unlimited debate is a modern obstructionist invention. Black people cannot afford to wait for a supermajority of senators to agree on key pieces of legislation, and Senate Republicans should not be allowed to stand in the way of providing relief from COVID-19 which disproportionately impacts Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, strengthening our Democracy through the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act, and providing representation for all Americans through statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. If senators cared about principled debate, they should be willing to publicly state their objection on the floor of the Senate chamber.
The filibuster delayed the elimination of Jim Crow poll taxes by twenty years and delayed passage of comprehensive Civil Rights legislation for nearly a century after the end of chattel slavery.14 Now, it is being used to halt progress on many major policy initiatives. As a member of the majority party in the Senate, you have a remedy at your disposal. Pledge to support the end of the Jim Crow filibuster by restoring majority rule to the Senate through the reinstatement of the talking filibuster and the lowering of the threshold on cloture votes in the Senate.
Deputy Senior Campaigns Director for Criminal Justice and Democracy
- 1 Alexander Hamilton et al., The Federalist Papers, 1. Signet Classic pr, A Signet Classic (New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2003).
- 2 Gregory J Wawro, Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the U.S. Senate. (Princeton University Press, 2013),
- 3 Adam Jentleson, Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, First edition (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2021).
- 4“NAACP | NAACP History: Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill,” NAACP, accessed January 29, 2021, https://www.naacp.org/naacp-history-dyer-anti-lynching-bill/.
- 5“Filibuster Ended as Senate Shelves Anti-Lynch Bill,” accessed January 29, 2021, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/national/race/022238race-ra.html.
- 6“Anti-Lynching Law in U.S. History,” NPR.org, accessed January 29, 2021,
- 7 C. p Trussell, “Senate Group Begins Filibuster Against Poll Tax Repeal Bill; FILIBUSTER BEGUN ON POLL TAX BILL,” The New York Times, November 14, 1942, sec. Archives,
- https://www.nytimes.com/1942/11/14/archives/senate-group-begins-filibuster-against-poll-tax-repeal-bill.ht ml.
- 8 Arthur Krock, “In The Nation; Derivations of the Poll-Tax Filibuster,” May 16, 1944, http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1944/05/16/96411582.html?pageNumber=20. 9Michael Dimock, Carroll Doherty, Jocelyn Kiley, et al., “Political Polarization in the American Public,” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy (blog), June 12, 2014,
- https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/. 10 Carroll Doherty, Jocelyn Kiley, and Nida Asheer, “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal,” Pew Research Center (blog), October 10, 2019,
- 11“Senate Bill to Extend Background Checks Killed by Filibuster – The Washington Post,” accessed February 2, 2021,
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/04/17/senate-bill-to-extend-gun-background-check s-killed-by-filibuster/.
- 12“DREAM Act Dies in Senate – POLITICOBack ButtonSearch IconFilter Icon,” accessed February 2, 2021, https://www.politico.com/story/2010/12/dream-act-dies-in-senate-046573. 13“Senate Republicans Block DISCLOSE Act for Second Straight Day,” accessed February 2, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2012/07/17/politics/senate-disclose-act/index.html.
14 Jentleson, Kill Switch.