Is the Senate Filibuster a ‘Jim Crow Relic’?
During his July eulogy for Rep. John Lewis (D–Ga.), a leading figure in the civil rights movement, former President Barack Obama expressed support for eliminating the Senate filibuster, which he called a “Jim Crow relic.” That position contradicted the one Obama took as a senator in a chamber controlled by Republicans, and his historical framing was more than a little misleading.
In its current form, the filibuster prevents a vote on legislation without 60 votes to cut off debate. The maneuver, which was accidentally authorized by a rule change the Senate approved in 1806, was first used in 1837 during the controversy over the Second Bank of the United States. It has been deployed many times since for reasons having nothing to do with government-enforced white supremacy.
Segregationists did use the filibuster to oppose civil rights legislation in the 1950s and ’60s. But just as the principle of federalism does not qualify as a “Jim Crow relic” simply because segregationists invoked it, the filibuster is not inherently a tool of oppression simply because they found it useful. Like other restraints on the majority’s will—including those mandated by the Constitution, such as requiring bicameral approval of legislation and the president’s assent in the absence of a congressional supermajority—the filibuster is an ideologically neutral obst
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