Melissa Harris-Perry: 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 to 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 to debate on the bill.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Good job. I had begun to think it was not even possible for such a miracle to occur, and why exactly is it so surprising to discover that congressional lawmakers are actually making laws? Because most of the time the Senate does nothing, and 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 Harris-Perry: I feel I didn't want to say the big F word in the introduction. Help us understand what it is that allows the US Senate to do so little.
Adam Jentleson: 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, but the idea was always that at the end of the day, the majority would rule, and 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, and that's what's so remarkable about the Senate state.
It become 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, and 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 Harris-Perry: Let's walk into some of those details so fast. Look, I know that I am not alone in my adoration of certain like Americana films, and obviously, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Jimmy Stewart doing the sweaty long working man filibuster on the Senate floor is 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 Jentleson: Absolutely not. 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, and we're talking about 1939 was when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington came out. The way it was deployed then was senators would actually stand on the floor and give a long speech, and 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, and so 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 we 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 and the film and 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 Harris-Perry: 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 kind of 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 Jentleson: That's absolutely right. As you said, it's important to understand where it comes from, and 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, but 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 bi-partisan achievement is basically a glorified highway bill, which was something the Senate used to pass regularly on huge bi-partisan votes, and now we are so dysfunctional that this is cause for great celebration, so it causes massive dysfunction. The other thing it does is that it is systematically empowers a narrow conservative, overwhelmingly white minority over the majority of the nation, and I think that is the reason why it needs to be reformed.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 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, and I'm actually excited that at least we're going to get to talk about a Highway bill. Can you detail 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 Jentleson: 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 and 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, and 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. 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 of 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, and 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, and 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, a Republican from Connecticut, who would 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.
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 Harris-Perry: 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 Jentleson: Yes, it absolutely is. Reform 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, but 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. 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 Harris-Perry: 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 Jentleson: 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, but once you decide what you want to do, implementing the reform is something that could be done in a matter of hours.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 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 Jentleson: Thanks so much for having me.
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