Today I finished reading "Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy," by Adam Jentleson -- who was the former deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid.
No longer is it necessary for someone filibustering to stand on the Senate floor and keep talking until their voice (or bladder) gives out. Now, Jentleson says, all a Senator has to do is indicate that they intend to oppose a bill and, bingo, the majority no longer is in control, a minority is.
Kill Switch is full of fascinating detail about how the filibuster came to be, who has wielded it, and what issues have been targeted for filibusters. But the gist of the book for those, like me, who favor Democrats doing away with the filibuster, is in the opening and closing chapters.
Here's excerpts from those chapters. First, the Introduction.
The filibuster has never been the exclusive property of southern reactionaries; as we will see, it has sometimes been deployed by liberals and progressives, and occasionally to historic effect.
But from its inception to today, the filibuster has mainly served to empower a minority of predominantly white conservatives to override our democratic system when they found themselves outnumbered, blocking progress that thteatened their power, their way of life, and the priorities of their wealthy benefactors, from the slaveholders of the nineteenth century to the conservative billionaires of today.
From John Calhoun, the antebellum father of nullification who argued, on the Senate floor, that slavery was a "positive good," to Richard Russell, the post-World War II puppet master of the Senate who swore that "any southern white man worth a pinch of salt would give his all to maintain white supremacy," to Mitch McConnell in our own time, who declared that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president," southern senators invented the filibuster, strengthened it, and developed alternative histories to justify it.
Over two centuries, they were able to shape the Senate and thereby the nation, retrofitting the Framers' vision to give themselves, a factional minority, veto power over every law the nation passes.
Speaking in grave stentorian tones, and making frequent reference to a tendentious account of the Framers and Senate history, they convinced us that this was the way it was meant to be.
But it was not. The Framers would have abhorred the filibuster. Their vision for the Senate was of a chamber that was thoughtful and deliberative, but where the majority rules. For half a century after the founding of the nation, the Senate operated according to their plan.
Here's the final paragraph of the book in the Conclusion chapter.
To fix the Senate, we must keep in mind that restoring an institution capable of producing intelligent solutions is the goal -- the Framers' vision is a corrective to "traditionalists" today, not the goal itself.
We do not elect senators to bask in pundits' praise for upholding Senate tradition; as this book has shown, most of what passes for "tradition" is in fact myth, invented by people seeking to protect their power from the march of change that has so often threatened it.
Calhoun and his modern acolytes, from Russell to McConnell, destroyed the best things about the Senate -- its deliberative nature, the forum it provided for free and open debate -- and replaced them with gridlock, all while telling us it was for the good of the institution.
The Senate needs to be rescued from its own self-indulgent myths, saved from the twisted, damaging Calhounian thing that it has become, and restored to Madison's model -- a model in which the minority is protected, the majority rules, and the business of the nation moves forward.
I'll end by noting that one surprise in the book for me was Jentleson's debunking of the oft-heard statement that the reason Republicans are favored to have control of the Senate is because small states have the same number of Senators, two, as large states.
Not true. Here's what Jentleson says about this.
Looking at seats by state population, there is no significant small-state bias toward Republicans. To the contrary, it's dead even.
The twenty Senate seats representing the ten smallest states are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with each party holding ten. Wyoming, the smallest state, is deep red, but if you zoom out a little on the list of smallest states, a bunch of blue states are among them, including Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Hawaii.
If you expand the group to the fifteen smallest states, the pattern is the same, with their thirty Senate seats equally divided between the parties at fifteen each. The same pattern holds at the other end of the spectrum: among the ten most populous states, their twenty Senate seats are evenly split between the parties at ten each.
...The fact that small and big states are evenly represented by Democrats and Republicans shows that the dysfunction in the modern Senate does not lie in its built-in bias toward small states.
Instead, as this half of the book will show, it lies in the way its rules have evolved to give certain groups of people -- as opposed to states -- more power. (There is a sliver lining here, since it would be much easier to change the Senate's rules that to break California into multiple states or carry out other proposals currently circulating -- more of that in the Conclusion.)
...The minority of voters putting Republican senators in office are not representative of a rapidly diversifying America riven by income inequality and stagnant wages. They are predominantly white, anti-choice conservatives serving wealthy interests, whom I will call WWAC's for efficiency's sake.
They are out of step with the direction of the country, and they spend year after year watching their status and power erode. But because the modern Senate empowers them far beyond their numbers, they are consistently able to impose their will on the majority.