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Commentary | ANDRES MARTINEZ

Who'll Apologize for the Filibuster?

The Senate should be ashamed of the tactic that killed anti-lynching legislation.

June 15, 2005|ANDRES MARTINEZ

Who knew the Senate was so cheeky? On Monday, a mere three weeks after the centrist, bipartisan Gang of 14 agreed, ever so proudly, to save the institution's fabled filibuster, senators passed a resolution apologizing for the chamber's failure to enact anti-lynching legislation.

Astonishingly, Senate Resolution 39 makes no mention of the f-word, which denotes the mechanism that allows a minority of legislators to block votes. The resolution duly notes that at least 4,742 people, mostly African Americans, were lynched in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968; that nearly 200 anti-lynching bills, backed by seven presidents, were introduced in Congress during the first half of the 20th century; that the House of Representatives did pass three strong anti-lynching measures, but that the Senate never did, thus failing its "minimum and most basic of federal responsibilities" to those who were "deprived of life, human dignity, and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States." As Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who sponsored the resolution, said, the Senate was "uniquely culpable" for Washington's failure to protect U.S. citizens from a type of domestic terrorism often orchestrated by local authorities.

What wasn't said is that the Senate was "uniquely culpable" because it cherished the filibuster -- a procedural rule that enhances each member's individual power -- over the Constitution. The Senate's failure to acknowledge the cause of its homicidal negligence robs its apology of much meaning or sincerity.

Those unfamiliar with history today, or generations from now, might blame the American people for sending senators to Washington who were evil or out of touch. But there were 70 senators willing to sponsor anti-lynching legislation as far back as 1938, and lives could have been saved if the federal government had taken action then.

The apology, in effect, covers up just how self-interested the Senate's actions really were, and how indefensible the filibuster remains. It distorts history by suggesting that a majority of senators were on the same moral plane with the anti-civil rights posse made up of the likes of Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi and Richard Russell of Georgia. (One hopes the Senate's cheekiness this week didn't extend to hosting any anti-lynching festivities in the unfortunately named Russell Senate Office Building, a monument to the Senate's obscene self-worship.)

It's hardly shocking that Landrieu wanted to keep the f-word out of the resolution. She was one of those moderates who saved the filibuster from attempts by conservative Republicans to "nuke" it for judicial nominations -- by allowing some of President Bush's stalled nominees to get a vote. During the Gang of 14 news conference, Landrieu exuberantly proclaimed: "I am so proud we were able to reach an agreement that truly reflects the best traditions of the Senate."

She went on to say that the deal "helps protect these cherished traditions by ensuring that the minority, even a lone individual, will continue to have the right to speak up and be heard." Her fellow sensible centrist, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, said the agreement "helps preserve the unique culture of this institution," a "culture in which legislative goals are reached with patience and perseverance."

Unique culture, unique culpability; take your pick.

These senators are insulting our intelligence. The filibuster is an anti-democratic instrument that upsets the delicate system of checks and balances already written into the Constitution. Liberal Democrats in the Senate aren't in favor of lynching, but they are fighting to preserve a reactionary weapon that, in future wrenching national debates, will empower obstructionists to kidnap that body just as they did during the civil rights debates. Not acknowledging that the filibuster was at issue in the lynching context, not even to address the filibuster's tarnished history, amounts to intellectual cowardice.

The Senate centrists have promised to filibuster judicial nominees only in "extraordinary circumstances," which presumably will include the resignation of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. When that happens, Majority Leader Bill Frist should again attack the filibuster, and not just for judicial confirmation battles.

If the Senate really wants to atone for its past sins, it should nuke the filibuster for all purposes.

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