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ETYMOLOGY—FILIBUSTER    PART 1

THERE IS NOTHING good to say about “filibuster.” Even its etymology is embarrassing. As noted in Merriman-Webster, the word comes from the Spanish filibustero, literally “freebooter.” “Filibuster” made its first appearance in English in 1851; M-W’s definition 1 is “an irregular military adventurer, specifically an American engaged in fomenting insurrections in Latin America in the mid 19th century.” Hardly an honorable activity in our nation’s history. 

M-W’s definition 2 is the familiar one in American politics: “a: the use of extreme dilatory [i.e., delaying] tactics (as in making long speeches in an attempt to delay or prevent action especially in a legislative assembly). b: an instance of this practice.”

Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits on filibustering as practiced in the U.S. Senate. For a deep dive, consider my principal sources: “The Filibuster and the Ghost of Calhoun,” by Robert J. Lacey, Logos, Fall 2020; “The Filibuster Fight,” by David Leonhardt, The New York Times, January 2, 2021, “What is the Senate Filibuster and What Would It Take to Eliminate It?,” by Molly E. Reynolds, The Brookings Institute, January 29, 2021; Kill Switch Explores How Senate Minority Uses Filibuster to Protect its Interests,” author Adam Lentleson’s interview, NPR, January 12, 2021; “House Passes Voting Rights and Elections Reform Bill,” by Juliegrace Brufke, The Hill, March 3, 2021; “Examining the Case Against the Filibuster,” by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker, February 4, 2021; and my usual Internet sleuthing.

A Balance of Power. Our Founding Fathers were wary of tyranny, whether arising from royalty or from the masses. Wisely, they incorporated a balance of power split among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. They went one step further in devising a bicameral Congress, the Senate to be a more cautious, deliberative body than the House of Representatives. In many ways, the U.S. federal government has been the world’s model for a democratic republic.

Image from usa.gov.

John C. Calhoun’s Unbalancing Act. Even before the term “filibuster” existed, Senator (and ex-Vice President, under John Quincy Adams) John C. Calhoun upset the balance of powers. 

John Caldwell Calhoun, 1782–1850, American politician, Representative from South Carolina, 1811–1817; Secretary of War, 1817–1825;  Vice-President, 1825-1832, under John Quincy Adams; Senator from South Carolina, 1832–1843, 1845–1850.

 As noted by Adam Jentleson, author of Kill Switch, the filibuster did not exist when the Senate was invented. Jentleson says, “It really was shepherded into existence by John C. Calhoun, who was a father of the Confederacy and the leading advocate for the slave power in the Senate during his time there.” Wikipedia notes, “Calhoun asserted that slavery, rather than being a ‘necessary evil,’ was a ‘positive good’ that benefited both slaves and owners.” 

In “The Filibuster Fight,” David Leonhardt writes, “Over the next century, Southern Democrats repeatedly used the filibuster to prevent Black Americans from voting and to defeat anti-lynching bills.” 

Image from The Democracy Reform Task Force.

For the People. H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2021, is a good case in point. Among other issues, H.R. 1 addresses voting rights for all Americans, election security, campaign finance reform, and gerrymandering.

According to Wikipedia, “The legislation is broadly supported by American voters, with nearly 67 percent support…. [Democrat voters: 77 percent; independents: 68 percent; and Republicans: 56 percent.]”

On March 3, 2021, H.R. 1 passed in the House of Representatives, 220-210, mostly along party lines. However, its chances in the Senate are slim. 

As noted in thehill.com, “The For The People Act, better known as H.R. 1—has been a top priority for Democrats, who argue restoring voters’ faith in the electoral process is more important than ever after former President Trump repeatedly asserted unfounded claims the election was stolen.”

The Hill continues, “The bill faces an uphill path in the upper chamber, which is now controlled by Democrats. While Democrats are expected to bring the legislation to the floor, it is highly unlikely to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.” 

In Logos, Robert J. Lacey observes, “Once cast in the harsh light of its Calhounian legacy, the filibuster reveals itself to be morally and intellectually bankrupt.” Yet again.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll see other actions of the filibuster as well as its countermeasures. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

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