As the Georgia Runoffs Arrive, a New Book Says the Senate Is Broken

As the Georgia Runoffs Arrive, a New Book Says the Senate Is Broken

As the Georgia Runoffs Arrive, a New Book Says the Senate Is Broken

As the Georgia Runoffs Arrive, a New Book Says the Senate Is Broken

Jentleson ably narrates this history, with all of its ironies and unintended consequences. In 1917, the Senate introduced Rule 22, allowing senators to call a vote for cloture — to end debate — but only if they could muster a supermajority of two-thirds (a threshold that has since been lowered to three-fifths, or 60 senators). The supermajority threshold was the result of a compromise in the Senate — “a reasonable thing to do at a time when Senate norms still compelled minorities to eventually yield to the majority,” Jentleson writes. But as those norms degraded over the ensuing decades, Rule 22 placed the onus on supporters of a bill to whip up not just a majority but a supermajority in order to end debate and get to a vote. What started out as an attempt to reform the filibuster and erode its power perversely became a facilitator of it.

“In the 87 years between the end of Reconstruction and 1964,” Jentleson writes, “the only bills that were stopped by filibusters were civil rights bills.” No other issue seemed to motivate obstructionists in quite the same way. The story after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been different, Jentleson says, but no less detrimental to progressive causes. The modern Senate has become so efficient (in one sense of the word) and the filibuster so streamlined that senators seeking to block or delay legislation don’t have to bother with an actual speech; they can silently filibuster a bill, and as if that weren’t enough of an oxymoron, there’s even a “hotline” to do it.

“All you have to do is call the cloakroom, tell them the senator you work for intends to place a hold on the bill, and the bill is filibustered,” Jentleson writes. “One phone call, one objection, and the threshold on any bill or nomination goes from a majority to a supermajority.”

Jentleson slowly builds his case, biding his time so that when he arrives at Reid’s decision to “go nuclear” in November 2013 — eliminating the filibuster for White House nominees, save those to the Supreme Court — Reid’s actions seem all but inevitable. Under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans tried to block President Obama’s nominees “with unprecedented frequency,” Jentleson writes, and he offers the numbers to prove it. “All other presidents combined had endured a total of 82 filibusters against their nominees. But from 2009 to 2013, President Obama alone faced 86.”

In “Kill Switch,” McConnell is expressly portrayed as a 21st-century version of Calhoun — infinitely blander, less extravagantly fanatical but more coldly efficient. One gets the sense that McConnell wouldn’t necessarily disagree with Jentleson’s assessment of how the Senate fundamentally operates; it’s just that he and his fellow Republicans find the filibuster useful to a conservative agenda, which generally has more to do with stopping legislation than advancing it. At the time of writing, McConnell has halted an effort to vote on $2,000 stimulus checks at the end of the pandemic year, bundling it with things that President Trump wants and Democrats decidedly don’t. Whether you call it a poison pill or a kill switch, the effect is the same.


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