Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. More than 600,000 Americans have lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside the pandemic's massive illness and death toll is the economic devastation it has brought. Over 9 million US workers lost their jobs during the first three quarters of 2020. Faced with an impending poverty pandemic, federal lawmakers acted swiftly. They sent out stimulus checks, they expanded unemployment insurance, they increased food subsidies, they implemented the eviction moratorium, and they established cash payments for the child tax credits.
In short, when they saw how many Americans were in peril, elected representatives worked together to expand the social safety net. According to a recent Urban Institute report, the result of these efforts was to lift nearly 20 million people in the US above the poverty line and reduce American poverty to its lowest rate on record. Some of you told us about what unemployment insurance benefits have meant to you and to your families during the pandemic and whether you're worried about the end of federal unemployment benefits in early September.
Tanya: Hi, my name is Tanya. I'm from Tampa, Florida. For the first time in my 20 years of employment, I received unemployment benefits during the recent pandemic after I was laid off from a sales position of 15 years. Without those benefits, I would certainly be homeless and unable to feed my kids because I don't have a lot of education and I had only 15 years in sales. Not a lot of work background.
Alexis: I received benefits and it was a lifesaver. Unfortunately, I found out that my part-time assistantship job for grad school that paid $300 a week was too much to qualify for unemployment even though I had been let go by my other part-time job and told to apply for unemployment. As a result, I now have to pay back money, nearly $3,000 in addition to not being able to receive the assistance that was helping make ends meet.
Now, I have no idea what I'm going to do because I can't go back to work full time due to not being able to afford childcare because I have another little one on the way. Yes, I've been extremely worried about it ending and I have no idea what's going to happen next. This is Alexis and I'm calling from Phil County.
John Abbott: Hi, this is John Abbott from Hopewell, New Jersey. As a self-employed music teacher and musician, the unemployment benefits are a godsend. I tried to bank as much as possible to prepare for the time when the benefits will stop. In the meantime, I'm working to rebuild my teaching practice and get more performance work. I pray the impact of the Delta variant will be minimal, but with the quadrupling of cases here in New Jersey, I'm not counting on it.
Melissa: We're going to have more on the federal unemployment benefits a bit later in the hour, but first, we're going to talk about this recent decline in poverty rate and what policymakers can learn from it with Sarah Beth Gehl, research director at the Southern Economic Advancement Project. Welcome to the show, Sara Beth.
Sarah Beth Gehl: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa: First, how clear is it that the decline that we're seeing in poverty is caused by and due to the increased government spending?
Sarah Beth: Well, it's very clear in the data already and we actually released a report last week, "Pandemic to Prosperity: South," where we're tracking different indicators. One of them that we're tracking is this monthly poverty estimate. You can really see month by month how different assistance programs impacted the poverty rate. Stimulus checks arrive and the poverty rate plummets, particularly for children. The federal unemployment expires and the poverty rate goes back up. You can really see in real-time how these assistance programs are impacting people who are living in poverty or near poverty.
Melissa: On the one hand, this feels like good news like, "Look, here we have empirical evidence that when we spend and we spend in these targeted ways to directly help Americans and their families, we lift people out of poverty." Why would there be any bad news here? What are the critics of this?
Sarah Beth: Well, absolutely, it's great news and one thing I would say is these are old programs. Unemployment insurance has been around since the 1930s. Earned income tax credit, food assistance, the '60s and '70s, the child tax credit, the '90s, and these are bipartisan programs. They've been put in place and supported across party lines. Really, what it's showing us is that we have the programs and mechanisms in place to attack poverty and we've just flexed the muscle of those programs right now.
I think that the question going forward is how much we want to flex that muscle outside of the pandemic. I think that critics will come and say that it is too costly, but I think that it's just a budget question in the end. What are we willing to spend if our goal is to reduce poverty?
Melissa: Of course, there's an old saying that budgets are moral documents, right? If you want to know what you believe in, look at where you spend your money. How do we move on this great pandemic news? This is like the one great piece of news out of the pandemic is this idea that, "All right, we've got the tools." If we resource those tools, we can actually change the economic future of America's most vulnerable. How do we create the political will to do that?
Sarah Beth: Part of these programs were safety net programs like food assistance, but others were really programs that were widespread universal like the stimulus checks and that was all about keeping the economy humming, right? This isn't just about anti-poverty programs, but our economy depends on folks having confidence, being out there spending, and having enough money to spend.
I think that part of the conversation is not just the safety net and anti-poverty but really how we're going to bring the economy out of this pandemic really restored and help it to grow. One of the ways to do that is to ensure that folks have enough money to spend. I think that it's both the moral and the economic argument that needs to be made. I think that's exactly the policy conversation we will be in in the next few months as a lot of these programs reach their end.
Melissa: On the one hand, I want to jump rope and cheerlead and be excited. On the other hand, how do I square these graphs, these data points with the stories I've been hearing from across the country about hunger during the pandemic, about experiences of homelessness? The poverty line as a statistical measure is one thing, but how are poor people, actual humans experiencing this pandemic moment?
Sarah Beth: Well, that's a great question. I think that it really gets to the poverty line is one figure and it's an aggregate. It looks across an entire year and a lot of these assistance programs were really episodic. You would get a stimulus check and that might help you make ends meet for a few months, but then it went away, or you would get unemployment insurance and the extra federal unemployment insurance, and then it would expire. We see this lurching that happened that if you're looking at an annual poverty rate, that really doesn't capture, and so families could really benefit for a few months and then dip back down into poverty.
I think that's also an important part of the policy conversation is how we ensure that people are not lurching back and forth over that poverty line, but that the safety net really gets them to a place where they have the ability to go look for a better paying job. They have the ability to go get training and skills development and they're not seeing that up-and-down cycle that can happen when these benefits come and go.
Melissa: One of the issues that we've talked about on this show has been the issue of wealth, right? When I'm talking about it with students, it's always think of wealth as how fluffy your mattress is, right? When the bad times hit, when unemployment comes, when a pandemic hits, if you've got a nice, big, fluffy mattress, you have something to fall back on. If it's thin and narrow or not there at all, then you fall down and harm yourself.
We know that there is a massive wealth gap between racial groups. Is there any way that the programs that we're talking about right now, which we're just doing that momentary and maybe even back-and-forth lift, can they have an impact on the long-term question of wealth and of fattening up that mattress for everybody?
Sarah Beth: I think that the child tax credit is really where this conversation is going to land in terms of wealth and stability of wealth building, because it is such a momentous effort to really reach in and particularly lift up child poverty, but it's expansive. It's reaching the vast majority of families in the US. The conversation really is going to turn to whether that should be permanent. Again, like the earned income tax credit, we've had the child tax credit for a long time and the question really is, at what level do we need it to be? That's a real opportunity to make that permanent and really begin that wealth building through that tax credit program.
Melissa: Can you tell us stories of-- just in order to take the policy and make it real for folks, some of the folks maybe that you've worked with individual people or families that can really help us to see what these policies have meant?
Sarah Beth: Yes. Last fall, we did a survey with a tech company, Propel, through their Fresh EBT app. These are households who are using food assistance, SNAP. We asked about challenges in the pandemic, but we also asked, "Are there any programs that are making a difference for you?" Overwhelmingly, it was unemployment insurance, food assistance, and stimulus checks.
We heard people say things like, "I was able to catch up on my bills," Deni in North Carolina said that. Eva in Arkansas said, "Until SNAP went up, it was either buy my medicine or eat." A woman in South Carolina told us, "We never went hungry because of those pandemic EBT benefits." These programs made a real difference in people's ability to make ends meet, to put food on the table, to pay their rent. Finally, we asked folks, "What do you want policymakers to know?"
What was really fascinating to us is people had very specific policy prescriptions that they were giving to policymakers through our survey. A lot of it was, "Come talk to us. Hear about our challenges and hear what would make a difference in our lives." That's something that we're really focused on going forward, particularly with the American Rescue Plan funds as state and local governments are putting these funds into place. We're doing a really hard push to have a commitment to community engagement so that those folks who are most marginalized can really guide how those funds can help make a difference in their lives.
Melissa: The Delta variant has increased cases of COVID across the country, but most intensely, the spikes we're seeing right in the South and right in many of these places where the need is greatest. Any thoughts about the fact that this pandemic is not over and what that means for the social safety net that we're seeing actually work right now?
Sarah Beth: Particularly in the South where we focus, one of the things that we talk about a lot is Medicaid expansion. Even if we're seeing the poverty rate fall, which is great news, like you and I discussed, the Southern states, in particular, have not expanded Medicaid. You might have a family that jumps above the poverty line, but the parents are still uninsured because of that lack of Medicaid expansion. They're probably one medical bill away from going back into poverty or going bankrupt.
Our perspective is this is a health crisis. It's ongoing and we've got to continue to shore up our healthcare infrastructure, both through our public health system, but also through Medicaid expansion to make sure that people can weather this crisis and that we're marrying those assistance programs like unemployment insurance and SNAP and stimulus checks with the healthcare infrastructure that will ensure that people can get back to work, can have healthy and safe lives.
Melissa: Sarah Beth Gehl, research director at the Southern Economic Advancement Project. So appreciate you joining us.
Sarah Beth: Thanks so much, Melissa.
Melissa: On September 5th, 2021, several of the CARES Act unemployment benefits are set to expire, but many Republican-led states have already halted the extra $300 a month in unemployment insurance payments. Lawsuits against this halt have been filed across the country. In Indiana and Maryland, the courts sided with the unemployed workers and the states were compelled to accept the additional $300 in federal unemployment insurance for their residents. On Thursday, another court sided with the unemployed residents of Arkansas. I spoke with Kevin De Liban, an attorney with Legal Aid in Arkansas, right after he got the news.
Kevin De Liban: We just got word from the judge that we've won our lawsuit, at least the preliminary step, forcing the state to reinstate all of these federal unemployment benefits for basically 69,000 people here in Arkansas. It's thrilling news.
Melissa: Tell me when and why you filed the lawsuit.
Kevin: We just filed the lawsuit last week. What's happened is, of course, with the pandemic, the federal government passed several new unemployment programs that kind of extended and expanded upon those that were preexisting. The state of Arkansas as well as basically half of the states in the country decided to terminate those over two months early.
That meant cutting off millions and millions of people of these vital benefits that folks need to keep the lights on and pay rent and have enough food to eat and all of those things. We sued the state of Arkansas here to say, "No, you couldn't cut these benefits off. You have to resume participating in them until they expire at the federal level," which happens right now as in early September.
Melissa: Now, help me to understand this because political science 101 says if you're a governor, you take dollars from the federal government to provide goodies for your constituents. Why in the world are so many of you having to sue your governors in order to keep the federal government's unemployment benefits?
Kevin: Well, it's a mystery because as you say, like in Arkansas, for example, the value of these benefits for just the 69,000 people who are here in our state is something like $30 million per week that would be fully federally funded coming into our economy. The stated reasons that the governors are doing this are actually based on false premises. The truth is that if you're receiving any of these unemployment benefits, you have to be making your best efforts to get back to work.
You have stringent work search requirements. If you are offered a suitable job, you have to take it. If you don't, you lose your benefits. The unemployment programs as they're currently working are already meant to help people get back into the economy or to drive people back into the workforce to the extent that they're able to. The fact is that the economy isn't good for so many people and that despite their best efforts, folks are not able to get new jobs despite searching and being required to search.
Melissa: How are we to understand that over and against what we so often have been hearing in the political discourse lately, which is the problem is we've got a work shortage, right? We've got plenty of jobs, not enough people to fill them. The main reason we don't have enough people to fill them is because folks are sitting home on unemployment.
Kevin: That's patently false. It just comes from either willful ignorance or maybe innocent ignorance, neither of which is acceptable. The fact is that program rules have been in effect for a long time. They were extended to these programs that require people to search for work, report their work search efforts, and to accept any suitable job that's offered. If you don't do those things, you lose your benefits. Anybody saying otherwise is either pushing a false narrative or simply doesn't understand how these programs work.
Melissa: I know there were some states and even Arkansas, who at least briefly decided to end these benefits. Have we seen a surge in unemployment as a result of those benefits ending in the states where it did end?
Kevin: No. There's been some studies that have come out these last couple of weeks that show that terminating these programs is not meaningfully affecting employment numbers in these states and may actually be doing the opposite.
Melissa: Now, help us to understand. I want to go back to the 69,000 people and I think you said $30 million a week, is that right?
Kevin: Yes, roughly $30 million a week.
Melissa: Help us to understand, those are big numbers [chuckles] or they feel like big numbers. What does that mean in a household? How many dollars are people receiving and what are those dollars going to purchase?
Kevin: For at least most of our clients at Legal Aid, we serve the lowest of low-income folks. It means $400 to $500 a week for most of our folks, maybe up to $600 a week. This is people paying their rent, paying their mortgage, buying food, having enough gas so they can drive. It's just basic life necessities that people are going without.
Apart from the material like suffering of not having enough to eat, you can imagine all the constant stress and worry of not knowing, "Okay, what's going to happen next month? Oh, the eviction moratorium is end date. Am I going to have a place to live? School is starting up. Am I going to be able to buy my kids the school supplies they need? Are we going to have enough to eat?" $400, $500, $600 a week is the difference between abject poverty and homelessness and immense human suffering and at least a very basic level of survival. Nobody's living large off those amounts, right? it's just basic survival.
Melissa: Clearly, part of the reason that unemployment surge ended so swiftly in Arkansas and across the country is the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 shutdown. Gosh, 18 months ago now, right? Quite some time ago. We're now watching COVID numbers surge again. With the Delta variant, we know that places like Arkansas are also under-vaccinated relative to the rest of the nation. Any conversations with either the people who you're serving or with other folks who are decision-makers and the communities that you're moving in about what you're expecting in terms of the economic and health impact of COVID going forward?
Kevin: On the part of the people that we serve, very much so. All of our folks are concerned about what COVID exposure again would mean. Arkansas is one of the leading hotspots, if not the leading hotspot of COVID right now, and we are in the bottom three to five states of vaccination rates.
All of our folks who we're serving know, "Hey, work is dangerous right now for many of their jobs." They're willing to go and do it if they have to, but it's risk of exposure. From the people who are making the decisions and the political class, we see markedly little interest or attention on the human impact of what this means for people who are trying to work, go back to work, take care of themselves and their families.
Melissa: Kevin De Liban is an attorney with Legal Aid of Arkansas and he just got a big win. Kevin, thanks so much for coming back on the show.
Kevin: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa. It's a delight.
Melissa: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. On Tuesday, the House Select Committee, formed to investigate the violent January 6 Capitol insurrection, held its first hearing. Earlier in the week, we discussed the racist language rioters hurled at Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn and the hard truths they revealed about our history.
Harry Dunn: Everything is different, but nothing has changed. Why is telling the truth hard? I guess in this America, it is.
Melissa: The hearing took place despite opposition for most congressional Republicans, who've largely resisted Democrats' attempts to examine the causes of the riot, including former President Donald Trump's role in inciting the violence. Following this week's testimony from law enforcement, we wanted to hear from someone with deep knowledge of the inner workings of the Capitol police force. Joining me now is Terry Gainer, who served as the Capitol police chief from 2002 to 2006 and then as the Senate sergeant-at-arms until 2014. He's currently a CNN political analyst. Thanks for being here, Terry.
Terry Gainer: Melissa, it's good to be with you. Thank you for covering this.
Melissa: We heard just a very brief portion of Officer Dunn's testimony. I'm wondering about how you felt watching the testimony from him and the other officers this week.
Terry: I actually thought the testimony was both chilling and agonizing. I know and I've worked with two of those officers, including Harry Dunn. It was very, very personal. You combine their personal experiences with the video that was shown during the testimony and that we've seen really tells a powerful story, but it hurt actually. These were friends.
Melissa: Yes, I had that same sense of just feeling gut-punched. Can you help us to understand how Capitol police are different from, say, our local police departments? Is there something different about processes of recruiting or hiring or training?
Terry: No, the training and the hiring is really very similar. They are full federal law enforcement officers. They go to the federal law enforcement training center in Glynco, Georgia for six months after they've gone through a rigorous process, which includes the background checks and polygraph. These are men and women with many of them have a college degree, some form of military, some with experience in the civilian world before doing this.
Then they come up to the Hill and they go through another two months of school at a very unique training center just outside of Washington, DC, and they go through a lot of specialized training of how it will be to police in and around the Hill. They pay a lot of attention to all the threats that we had definitely seen after 9/11. They are good, solid officers who are-- some ride motorcycles, some on cars. We even had horses for a while. It's a good federal law enforcement agency.
Melissa: You mentioned a time period I want to hear more about. You served as chief during those years immediately following 9/11. What was the daily sense of threat during that time and what kind of effect did it have on the officers and on your protocols?
Terry: Well, we nearly doubled the size of the department after 9/11. I had been the executive assistant chief in Washington, DC, and asked to come over to take over that position. The threat, if people remember after 9/11, was improvised, explosive devices, devices being delivered by planes and cars and trucks or backpacks, and then ultimately shoes. That certainly was the concentration as we tried to harden the Capitol and the streets and bollards and who could go where and what type of access.
Then even the big Capitol Visitor Center was developed so that people would only come in that way. The threats kept evolving after 9/11. I have to admit, Melissa, that even when I was chief or the chief law enforcement officer of the Senate as sergeant-at-arms, we did not practice or anticipate at that time an insurrection with thousands of people storming it. We did practice for a lot of things after 9/11, but not for insurrections, not armed rebellion.
We had protocols in place that would have kept small groups that we anticipated could have tried to come to the skin. We had that Capitol Visitor Center open so you would have to be screened to come into the building, but to attack in the numbers that were done there and rush both the east and west front steps was not something we anticipated. We did not train to fight armed insurrectionists in the building.
We did not talk about what use of force would be used in those types of things, so that was a shortcoming. Now, maybe after some of the incidents we saw over the summer, whether there were capitols being taken over, I think in Oregon and Michigan, maybe the thought process should have been changing. That's what we're going to investigate if we finally have a good, solid committee hearing.
Melissa: I feel like that's extremely important for the American public to understand that even if there was intelligence coming in, and we'll learn whether or not officers had that intelligence, but that there wasn't a clear protocol because I got to say, I remember as I was watching it thinking, is this what they're supposed to do? Is this how it's supposed to happen?
Terry: Well, like I say, we train for one or two or three people rushing those steps. We had enough officers and there were enough officers to attack and confront them. We had heavily armed people behind some ballistic podiums on each side. In fact, it could take further action, but it wasn't designed to repel hundreds and hundreds at a time. I know even as this thing was unfolding in the media days, people said, "Why didn't you open fire?" Number one, that's not the general protocol across the United States when you have unruly mobs.
There's all sorts of training we've done over the years to try to use crowd control measures less than lethal force. The size of the crowd, the anger, the hate, the cruelty, the weapons they had, that requires a different thought process not only by the Capitol police and they're undergoing that now but law enforcement agencies around the United States. If they're going to be rebellious people who are intense to do harm, to take over, to hang, who are that hateful or that stolen our heart, we've got to think differently how we're going to manage that. Intelligence gathering is one way.
Melissa: I want to ask about a really difficult moment. On October 3rd, 2013, Miriam Carey was shot and killed by Capitol police. She was an unarmed civilian. She had an infant strapped into her car seat. I have to say, I thought about Miriam Carey a lot as I was watching the January 6 events and wondering how it is that she could have been killed. Let me be clear. It's not that I wish for one more loss of life on January 6, but is part of the reason that that happened because of this protocol difference that you're revealing for us right now?
Terry: Well, that's a pretty complicated question. Let me address the first one. We did and do have different procedures when we believe a car is an improvised explosive device vehicle, the way they deliver that. Unlike police departments across the United States that have pretty much stopped saying, "You do not shoot at moving vehicles for any reason." Even if the vehicle is coming at the officer, we don't shoot. On the Capitol complex and other areas, if there's a thought that you are going to deliver a bomb, you are authorized to use force likely to cause death.
I know some of the blowback on that. Frankly, I think there should have been much more transparency and people should see that now, but that's entirely different and it's a tough decision for an officer to make and they're trained to make that decision than it is to open fire on crowds of that size. That's just not how we do it. We don't turn dogs on crowds of that size. We don't turn fire hoses on crowds of that size. There's other things that need to be done to break up a crowd and put defense in position than opening fire. That would have been the absolute wrong signal. Terrible thing to happen.
Melissa: Terry Gainer, thank you so much for joining us and walking us through this. Terry Gainer served as the Capitol police chief from 2002 to 2006 and is currently a CNN political analyst. Terry, Thanks so much.
Terry: Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa: Something truly remarkable and rare happened this week in Washington, DC. The US Senate voted to move forward on legislation. Yes, you heard me right. Something actually happened in the US Senate. Not a press conference, not a statement, real and actual legislation moved through the upper chamber when 67 members of the US Senate voted to advance the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Reporter: The Senate has voted to move ahead with a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package in a 67 to 32 procedural vote late Wednesday. 17 Republicans joined all Democrats to begin debate on the bill.
Melissa: Good job. I have begun to think it was not even possible for such a miracle to occur. Why exactly is it so surprising to discover that congressional lawmakers are actually making laws? Because most of the time, the Senate does nothing. To be clear, that's not an ideological or partisan evaluation.
It's an empirical observation, one made by Adam Jentleson whose book Kill Switch reports, "When the Senate is in session, it typically takes half off Monday and Thursday and all Friday." I'm about to run for the Senate, y'all. Here to help us understand what is happening in the Senate is Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate. Adam was also deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid. Great to have you here, Adam.
Adam Jentleson: It's so great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Melissa: I feel like I didn't want to say the big F word in the introduction, but help us understand what it is that allows the US Senate to do so little.
Adam: Well, it's the filibuster. That's the F word. What's interesting about the filibuster and what I write about in the book is that the way that it is used today is very different from the way that it's been used in the past and much more destructive. I also go through how it was not part of the original Senate and actually runs counter to the framers' vision for the Senate.
Today, the Senate was created to protect minority rights and to give the party that's in the numerical minority a right to debate and to have their opinion heard and to try to influence legislation. The idea was always that at the end of the day, the majority would rule. What you saw with the vote earlier this week that you mentioned was not a debate, not a vote on the bill itself actually, but just a vote to open debate on the bill.
That's what's so remarkable about the Senate today. It becomes so paralyzed that simply the act of deciding to open debate on a bill is a reason for celebration and a newsworthy achievement. That is how paralyzed we've gotten. It's because of the filibuster and, specifically, the way the filibuster has mutated over the last few decades into something completely unrecognizable and very, very destructive.
Melissa: Let's walk into some of those details. First, look, I know that I am not alone in my adoration of certain Americana films. Obviously, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Jimmy Stewart doing the sweaty, long, working man filibuster on the Senate floor is like one of those moments that I think is in the minds of many of us political nerds when we think, "We don't want to do away with that. That is debate. That is what the Senate is for," but that's not what the filibuster is right now, right?
Adam: Absolutely not and it's not even really what the filibuster was at the time. It was very much a whitewash of the filibuster. It was accurate in the sense that the way the filibuster was deployed during that period. We're talking about 1939 was when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington came out. The way it was deployed then was that senators would actually stand on the floor and give a long speech.
You did have to hold the floor physically in order to maintain the filibuster and to delay or block whatever you were trying to stop. That's very different today. Today, you don't have to give a speech at all. You just have to send an email and we can talk about the reasons why that is, but it's as easy as opening an app and hitting it today. Whereas before, you actually had to put in a lot of effort to deploy it. The whitewash part is about how and to what purpose it was used.
The reason I think that it resonates for a lot of Americans is the film has this underdog portrayal of Mr. Smith, an average guy who went to Washington and he finds himself fighting corruption in the Pacific Northwest. That is not how the filibuster was being deployed at the time. The primary use of the filibuster at the time the movie came out was to block civil rights bills from passing. As I said, the movie came out in 1939. The most recent use of the filibuster by the time the movie came out was to block an anti-lynching bill that had passed the House of Representatives and actually had majority support in the Senate and could have become law if it weren't for the filibuster.
During the Jim Crow era, from the end of reconstruction in 1877 until the passage of the first major civil rights bill in 1954, the exclusive use of the filibuster to block bills altogether to stop them dead in their tracks to make them fail was against civil rights bills. Civil rights bills were the only category of bills that were killed by the filibuster during that 87-year period.
Melissa: As much as I appreciate the importance of understanding that kind of white supremacist or racist history, that for me would not be enough to say we should eliminate the filibuster because there'd be so many things we just have to get rid of if it was enough based in our racialized history. I think what moved me most about your text was your description that no matter who wins like in most of the country, no matter what the actual preferences are of the American people, the filibuster can still kill it.
Adam: That's absolutely right. As you say, it's important to understand where it comes from. I think it's critically important to understand that it's not part of the fundamental vision of the Senate because I think, oftentimes, it is defended as this foundational feature of our government when, in fact, it is basically a historical accident that was ushered into existence by obstructionists throughout history and, oftentimes, with the prime motivation of maintaining white supremacy.
As you say, after the 1970s or so, it started to be used by both parties on a variety of issues, not just civil rights. Certainly, Democrats and progressives could point to instances where it came in handy for them to stop something that they opposed. When you step back and take a look at it, it is a tool that does two things primarily. One is to increase the amount of dysfunction in our system and make it almost impossible for basic business to pass.
What was being celebrated this week as a huge bipartisan achievement is, basically, a glorified highway bill, which was something the Senate used to pass regularly on huge bipartisan votes. Now, we are so dysfunctional that this is cause for great celebration. It causes massive dysfunction. The other thing it does is that it systematically empowers a narrow conservative, overwhelmingly white minority over the majority of the nation. I think that is the reason why it needs to be reformed.
Melissa: We talked a little bit here about how it's been used around the death of civil rights bills and the fact that we're excited about a highway bill. I'm actually excited that at least we're going to get to talk about a highway bill, but can you retell for our listeners the story of how this filibuster, this kill switch really intervened, and this was when you were working in the Senate with Harry Reid, relative to gun control?
Adam: Absolutely. This was a big turning point for me. I think in a lot of ways, it was this moment that led me to ask the questions that led to writing this book. This was April of 2013 and the Senate was considering a bill to implement universal background checks on handgun or on all gun purchases. This was in the wake of the Newtown massacre that, of course, had occurred in December of 2012.
I'm sure folks remember, but this was when 21st graders and several teachers were gunned down in cold blood in their classroom in Newtown, Connecticut. This was an unbelievable tragedy, a horrifying massacre. The country was in full support of moderate, modest measures to combat the epidemic of gun violence in America. The bill that came out of this process that had the most support was a bill to implement universal background checks. This bill had everything that you would think you would need in our system of government to pass, right?
If you go back to Schoolhouse Rock - How a Bill Becomes a Law, this bill had it all. It had the support of about 90% of the American people. It had the support of a healthy majority of senators in the Senate, of 55 senators from both parties. It was written and advanced by two senators of different parties, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey, a Republican in Pennsylvania who couldn't have been more different in their own personalities and styles but came together on this bill.
It even had the support of a lot of pro-gun organizations. It didn't have the support of the NRA, which was a big factor, but it had the support of lots of other pro-Second Amendment groups because it was seen as just a reasonable thing to do. Despite all of this, this bill failed in the Senate and it did not fail because it couldn't get majority support. It didn't fail because it didn't have the public behind it. It didn't fail because it was a bad policy.
It failed because a narrow minority of Republican senators who represented less than a third of the American population were able to rally an opposition to it and block it from passing. They didn't have to give a speech on the floor at any point during debate. The bill was on the floor for about a week. Grand total time spent debating it was about two hours by its opposition over the course of a week. Mitch McConnell, who was the leader of the opposition at the time, spent a grand total of about two minutes debating this bill.
The filibuster that was supposed to be there to let senators have a great debate on the issues facing the nation was deployed, not for anybody to give a speech, not for anybody to tell their side, but simply to raise the threshold that it took to pass this bill from a majority where it was for most of the Senate's existence to a supermajority, with senators barely having to lift a finger.
This bill, implementing a modest, reasonable gun control policy supported by 90% of the American people, failed quietly with not much debate in the Senate chamber. That was a deeply alienating moment for me. I talk in the book about, how after the debate, we met with some of the parents of the children who had been slain. One man, in particular, a man named Neil Heslin. A big guy or a Republican from Connecticut, who had come to Washington with the thought that he would be able to persuade Democrats and Republicans to support this very modest measure that would possibly prevent other kids from dying like his son had.
Just sat in Senator Reid's office and broke down and cried and we couldn't explain to him what happened. He thought he had done everything right and he had. They built support for this bill. It was a reasonable measure, but it failed. Our inability to explain that to him is what led me to start asking the questions that led to this book because this is not the way the system is supposed to work.
Melissa: Adam, I so appreciate you taking the time to retell that to us because I think that was also very convincing for me, the idea that it's one thing in a democracy. If we debate it, if we fight it out, and then you lose. I mean, okay, you lick your wounds, you regroup, and you come back for another day, but it's really different if you don't even have to debate. We don't even have an opportunity to hold our lawmakers accountable for why they did or did not support something. Is it possible to reform the filibuster, perhaps not in a way that eliminates it altogether but that forces it to be active, that forces some level of debate to occur so that, at least, the American people have a choice?
Adam: Yes, it absolutely is. Reform, it can be crafted in any number of ways. It's really only limited by the creativity of the reformers themselves. What you could do to meet the goals you describe is require senators to actually be on the floor if they're going to filibuster. Try to get it back to the idea that if you have something to say, you're welcome to say it. Like you say, let's have a debate. Let's argue it out. Let's do it in full public view and let the American people decide who they agree with.
On this gun control bill, the other side lost. They lost in every respect. They lost public support. They lost by not getting a majority, but then they won because they were able to block the bill. Let's switch that around. Let's make it so that if you want to win the debate, you actually have to persuade people to come over to your side so you could implement a reform that would require senators to actually hold the Senate floor and give speeches if they're going to deploy the filibuster.
You could also narrow to set a certain scope for what would be allowed to pass through this more expedited process. You could decide to have a carve-out. It's a very popular idea right now for things related to democracy reform or civil rights because, right now, a lot of other things can get around the filibuster by going through this process called "reconciliation."
It's pretty arbitrary what gets to go through that process and what doesn't basically is what can comply with a series of very complicated rules that were passed in the 1980s. Again, not a grand Senate tradition. This is something that was invented in 1986. To expand the scope of what can get around the filibuster would be a reasonable thing to do, I think, especially given its history in blocking civil rights.
There's a number of modest reforms that you could pass that would go a long way to alleviating the dysfunction that the filibuster is currently causing and actually try to get it back to what it was supposed to do, which is to have people go to the floor and debate and let the American people decide which side they agree with after hearing the arguments from both sides.
Melissa: You said a couple of times there, you could do this or you could do that. Who is the "you"? Who is it who could do this?
Adam: A majority of senators of any party. The Senate is designed to be responsive to the will of the majority. As soon as 50 senators plus the vice president decided they wanted to implement a reform, whatever that reform is, they could do it tomorrow. That is not the hard part. The hard part is getting the votes to do it. Once you decide what you want to do, implementing the reform is something that could be done in a matter of hours.
Melissa: Sounds like a plan. Adam, thank you so much for joining us. Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate. Please, folks, take time to read this one. Thank you for joining us, Adam.
Adam: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa: That's all the politics we have for today, y'all. We really appreciate you tuning in. Now, before I head out, let me give a quick shout-out to our fantastic team that helps me to make the radio. Our producers are Ethan Oberman, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Shanta Covington, and Katerina Barton. Our line producer is Jackie Martin. Our senior producer is Amber Hall. Vince Fairchild is the genius on the board operating.
Jay Cowit is our director and sound designer and Meg Dalton is our digital editor for the week. David Gebel is our executive assistant and Lee Hill is our executive producer. The Olympian Dominique Dawes was the guest. MHP most geeked out over this week. Go check out that segment if you haven't heard it at thetakeaway.org. Thanks so much for listening. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway.
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