Back at the beginning of the year—and just two days before January 6—I was writing about the dire situation on Capitol Hill, and mentioned Profiles in Courage, the book John F. Kennedy and Theodore Sorensen wrote about brave US senators in our history who took unpopular stands in the face of loud opposition.
When it was published in 1956, people joked that the book was such a slim volume because so few senators had ever demonstrated such heroism. In January, I wrote that today’s Congress held too many men and women “devoid of scruples and eager only for the power to hold the country back from healthy reform—and all of this in the name of greed, self-aggrandizement, political domination and slavish devotion to a childish, petulant demagogue.”
Now that it’s already June, in some ways, it’s gotten worse, even though Democrats now hold the White House and the Senate and House by the slimmest of margins. Republican members continue to spread the two Big Lies—that a cheated Trump was the rightful winner of the election and because of that, the January assault on the Capitol was justified, and/or nowhere near as serious as Democrats would have you believe. There’s no truth to any of it; such lies represent an unprecedented erosion of American democracy.
Their defense or denial of the insurrection is a complete flip from where Republican leadership—especially Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy—were in the immediate aftermath of January 6. Then, McConnell and McCarthy were critical of Trump and the attack and urged a thorough investigation. Now, like serial offenders, they and their colleagues have returned to the combination of self-abnegation and abject groveling before the addled former guy—without whom they believe all their power, influence and money would be sucked away. Five dead and the coverup is in full swing. Such a courageous lot.
What’s more, truly progressive legislation is being stymied by the thin Democratic majority in the Senate (with 50-50 ties broken by Vice President Harris in her role as president of the Senate) and the interference of two conservative Democratic senators in particular, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. The filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass almost anything, was used to shoot down the establishment of an independent January 6th investigative commission and is being wielded to threaten attempts to create a comprehensive infrastructure bill, campaign finance and voting rights reform, a revamp of criminal justice and law enforcement, immigration policy and gun control, among many pressing issues.
Manchin and Sinema insist that any legislation must be “bipartisan,” a notion that worked when there truly was some semblance of cooperation between parties and a dedication to country over power and privilege. In other words, back when the GOP wasn’t a crazed personality cult.
In an op-ed published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Sunday, Manchin proclaimed his opposition to passing current voting rights legislation without bipartisan support and wrote, “I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster. For as long as I have the privilege of being your U.S. senator, I will fight to represent the people of West Virginia, to seek bipartisan compromise no matter how difficult and to develop the political bonds that end divisions and help unite the country we love.”
This is a dodge and nothing more. As columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote in The Washington Post on May 28, “Manchin is not dumb. His ploy is obvious: Make preserving the filibuster more important than any item (even voting rights or a commission to investigate insurrection) and insist, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary, that there are 10 Republican votes to break the impasse. But there aren’t…
“Rather, the filibuster is a convenient crutch for Manchin, who has avoided taking hard votes when 10 Republicans could not be found to achieve cloture. In that manner, he has ducked the wrath of more conservative voters back home and sidestepped the ire of the party’s progressive base…
“Perhaps not now, but eventually, the pressure will intensify on Manchin. His political legacy will be determined: He either will be known as the man who defended democracy in its darkest hour, or the man who helped Republicans subvert our democracy.”
Which brings me to another book. In my search for a time when at least some of our Republican legislators were more mensches than malleable mice, at the home of friends, I found a copy of The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman. The late historian is best known for The Guns of August, a fascinating and frightening account of the cascade of events—many of them avoidable—that led to World War I and the deaths of some 20 million military and non-combatants. (President Kennedy recommended it to his advisors during the Cuban missile crisis as a warning of how seemingly unrelated moments can snowball into catastrophe.)
The Proud Tower is kind of a prequel to The Guns of August, a collection of essays, first published in 1966, all of them set during the 25 years leading up to World War I. One chapter is devoted to Thomas Brackett Reed, the Republican congressman who represented the state of Maine from 1877 to 1899. He served as speaker of the House from 1889 to 1891 and again from 1895 to 1899. In him, I found elements of leadership we could use today. According to Tuchman, “Speaker Reed, in character, intellect and a kind of brutal independence represented the best that America could put into politics.”
A 2011 biography of Reed is subtitled, “The Man who Broke the Filibuster,” and that’s exactly what he did. If you ever wondered why the House does not have filibuster rules as the Senate does, in part you can look to Tom Reed.
Reed was an imposing figure in Washington, at six foot three and nearly 300 pounds, so physically large, a passerby observed that he made the streets seem narrower. He was a master of rhetoric and possessed of a scathing wit. When Illinois Democratic Congressman William McKendree Springer ended a lengthy peroration with Henry Clay’s oft quoted, “I’d rather be right than president,” the speaker replied, “The gentleman need not be disturbed; he will never be either.” Of two other members, he said, “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.”
Reed also was a first-class debater and parliamentarian, so skilled at the arcana of congressional procedure that he wrote a guide titled Reed’s Rules. He was troubled by a tactic known as the “silent filibuster,” much like the method Manchin, Sinema and Republicans insist on upholding in today’s Senate.
In Reed’s day, the House party-in-power situation was almost exactly the reverse of today’s; it was Republicans who held the House by only 168 members to 160—just three votes more than a quorum. Democrats stymied legislation by insisting on roll call votes but remaining silent when their names were read, thus preventing a quorum and effectively filibustering legislation, including a bill aimed, in part, at eliminating attempts to suppress the Black vote., including the poll tax.
Tuchman wrote: “To Reed, the issue was survival of representative government. If the Democrats could prevent that legislation which the Republicans by virtue of their electoral victory could rightfully expect to enact, they would in effect be setting aside the verdict of the election. The rights of the minority, he believed, were preserved by the freedom to debate, and to vote but when the minority was able to frustrate action by the majority, ‘it becomes a tyranny.’ He believed that legislation, not merely deliberation, was the business of Congress. The duty of the speaker to his party and country was to see that that business was accomplished, not merely to umpire debate.”
Reed called the Democrats out—remember that southern Dems were the segregationists then—and the ensuing outrage on their part was a marvel of bombast and bluster. It’s worth picking up a copy of The Proud Tower and reading Tuchman’s description of the mayhem which included screaming fits, kicked-in doors and members hiding under their desks.
The speaker won out. He had, Tuchman noted, “an embedded strength which men who fear the worst, or will yield principles to avoid the worst, can never possess. It endowed him with a moral superiority over the House which members without knowing why could sense in the atmosphere.”
Reed declared, “We have taken here so long a stride in the direction of responsible government.”
You can speculate about what our government might be like if such legislators were present among the Republicans—and conservative Democrats like Manchin and Sinema—today. Instead, we face men and women of the opposition so bereft of ideas, policies or principles that all they seem to be able to do is scream election fraud: if Trump is not “reinstated,” they threaten to hold their collective breath until they burst.
We are past arguments about bipartisanship and tradition. Despite Joe Biden and Kamala Harris being in the White House we remain in existential peril. Dropping the filibuster gives patriots a chance to save the republic.
When Thomas Reed was being considered for the GOP presidential nomination back in 1892, he joked, “They might do worse and I think they will.”
They did then and since have done so on many other occasions, Donald Trump being the latest choice, and perhaps the fatal one that could still destroy us all.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.