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Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy Kindle Edition
With a new epilogue on filibuster battles under the Biden administration
THE CASE FOR ENDING THE FILIBUSTER
"A truly excellent book… blistering and persuasive.” —Ezra Klein, New York Times
An insider’s account of how politicians representing a radical white minority of Americans have used “the world’s greatest deliberative body” to hijack our democracy.
Our democracy is under assault from homegrown authoritarians, with most observers blaming Donald Trump and the Republican Party that submitted to him. Yet as Adam Jentleson shows, the problem not only goes back to the nineteenth century, but is less about the presidency than it is about our nation’s most venerated institution: the United States Senate. A revelatory history of minority rule in America as expressed through the Senate filibuster, Kill Switch shows that white conservatives have long relied on the filibuster—which is not featured in the Constitution, and which, as Jentleson demonstrates, the Framers would have opposed—to shut down attempts to create a multiracial democracy. Featuring a new epilogue on filibuster battles under the Biden administration, Kill Switch will remain an essential warning about the costs of empowering this nation’s right-wing minority.
• “Jentleson understands the inner workings of the institution, down to the most granular details, showing precisely how arcane procedural rules can be leveraged to dramatic effect.” —Jennifer Szalai, New York Times
• “Careful and thorough and exacting.” —Michael Tomasky, New York Review of Books
• “[An] excellent, surprising new book.” —Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker
― Michael Tomasky, New York Review of Books
"[An] excellent, surprising new book . . . Jentleson is knowledgeable and adept, offering an account of increasingly flagrant obstruction that culminates in the age of McConnell."
― Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker
"An impeccably timed book. . . . In Kill Switch, Jentleson explains how ‘the world’s greatest deliberative body’ has come to carry out its work without much greatness or even deliberation, serving instead as a place where ambitious legislation goes to die. . . . [Jentleson’s] intimacy with the Senate turns out to be his book’s greatest strength. Jentleson understands the inner workings of the institution, down to the most granular details, showing precisely how arcane procedural rules can be leveraged to dramatic effect."
― Jennifer Szalai, New York Times
"[L]eading Democrats, including Reid and former president Barack Obama, are pressing for a sweeping rehab of the “home” Biden has found so comfortable. Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, a new book by Adam Jentleson, makes for a powerful brief on their behalf… a compelling read."
― Kathy Kiely, Washington Post
"[A]n important new book… Adam Jentleson offers a harrowing portrait of how anti-majoritarian dysfunction has paralyzed the U.S. Senate… he writes with an insider’s knowledge… As the Senate has deviated further and further from majoritarian norms, the House and the state legislatures have followed. Among the great merits of Jentleson’s Kill Switch is that it reminds us how recent this trend is."
― David Frum, The Atlantic
"[P]erfectly timed… authoritative and well-documented."
― Lloyd Green, The Guardian
"[A] powerful historical account."
― Julian Zelizer, CNN.com
"[C]harts the rise and repeated mutations of the filibuster… Jentleson assesses the chamber without the institutional nostalgia that tends to infect its alumni. He ably punctures the propaganda its advocates created to defend it (primarily a tool to allow the South from being outnumbered in Congress by the North, first on slavery, and later on civil rights)."
― Jonathan Chait, New York
"[A] well-crafted call for reform… lively and effective… enlivened with war stories… Jentleson’s point in retelling the history is to drive a truck through defenders’ two leading talking points. First, the filibuster was never about the principle of unlimited debate. That was always a fig leaf for minority power. Second, its effects are not symmetric; no reason to cool it on reform because the shoe will eventually be on the other foot. Democrats want more from the federal government and need legislation to enact it."
― Daniel Schlozman, n+1
"Informative and timely... A startling read that will provoke tough questions about governance, this is highly recommended to all interested in government reform."
― Library Journal, starred review
"Engrossing... Jentleson skillfully clarifies many arcane legislative procedures and brings a wide range of historical episodes to vivid life. Readers will be galvanized to make the issue of Senate reform a priority."
― Publishers Weekly, starred review
"In Kill Switch, Adam Jentleson has created both an essential portrait of a Senate―and a political system―in crisis, as well as a crystal-clear analysis of how to save it. Combining prodigious research with the experience of serving at the right hand of Harry Reid, this is a necessary book for understanding why the Senate has become the key impediment to governance in America. Every member of the US Senate should read it, and so should the rest of us."
― Ezra Klein, New York Times bestselling author of Why We’re Polarized
"Kill Switch is a damning account of how a tool honed to maintain white supremacy has come to cost us all. After reading Jentleson's book, you'll understand why President Obama called the filibuster a Jim Crow relic, and you'll want to join the movement to end it, for the sake of our economy, our democracy, and our planet."
― Heather McGhee, author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
"Adam Jentleson is a creature of the Senate and no one understands it better than he does. This iconic American institution has been severely damaged by feckless Republican senators who kowtow to every erratic action of Donald Trump. Jentleson understands restoring the Senate to the Framer’s vision as an exceptionally strong deliberative body is essential to restoring our democracy."
― Harry Reid, former U.S. Senator and Senate Majority Leader
"The Senate is now profoundly rigged, with rules that make it easy to pass tax cuts for the rich and to pack the courts for the powerful, but allow the minority party to block bills to assist ordinary families. The Senate is now the graveyard for bills to improve health care, housing, education, worker rights, or to tackle issues like criminal justice, immigration, gun safety, or climate chaos. The biggest culprit of this corrupted, paralyzed Senate is the filibuster, which was born out of the determination of white, wealthy, privileged interests to block civil rights for minority Americans. If you want to understand the Senate’s descent, and its potential path back to relevance, and how vital that path is to restoring a government ‘of, by, and for the people,’ then this book is essential reading."
― Senator Jeff Merkley
― Anand Giridharadas, bestselling author of Winners Take All
"The Senate is the epicenter of American political dysfunction: the place where ideas with broad support are sent to die while those backed by plutocrats and extremists are set into law. In this analytically rich yet highly readable insider account, Adam Jentleson shows why today’s undemocratic Senate is an affront to the Framers’ vision―and how we can fix it."
― Jacob Hacker, best-selling coauthor of Let Them Eat Tweets and Winner-Take-All Politics
"A provocative portrait of a dysfunctional―by design, it seems―U.S. Senate.... The Senate has been in a long state of decline, writes Jentleson, public affairs director at Democracy Forward and former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Harry Reid.... An astute and maddening account of a broken institution and, in turn, a broken democracy."
― Kirkus Reviews --This text refers to the hardcover edition.
About the Author
- ASIN : B08D4QJQTH
- Publisher : Liveright (January 12, 2021)
- Publication date : January 12, 2021
- Language : English
- File size : 1380 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 336 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #260,135 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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Reviewed in the United States on February 1, 2021
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The fact is that GOP presidential candidates have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections. Though Republicans controlled the Senate for ten years since 2000, Senate Democrats have represented a majority of the American population every year. One indicator of this anti-democratic streak came in 2020 when the GOP cancelled Republican presidential primaries and caucuses in 22 states. Another indicator is Republican eagerness to enact legislation at the state level making it harder to vote.
The filibuster is the quintessential tool of minority rule. It allows 41 senators to block the wishes of 59 colleagues, the president, and the majority of Americans. In the current era, Republicans are the filibuster's chief defenders. They operate the kill switch to prevent progressive legislation from passing.
Jentleson is the former deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid. His book describes in detail the history of the filibuster, and how it has been used.
Though defenders cite tradition, the filibuster is not authorized by the COTUS. Instead, it evolved over two centuries into the tool it is today. One constant is that the filibuster is primarily weilded by white conservatives. Jentleson puts it this way:
"From its inception to today, the filibuster has mainly served to empower a minority of predominantly white conservatives to override our democratic system when they found themselves outnumbered, blocking progress that threatened their power, their way of life, and the priorities of their wealthy benefactors, from the slaveholders of the nineteenth century to the conservative billionaires of today."
Jentleson makes a strong case that the Framers intended majority rule to prevail in the Senate, with a few explicit exceptions, such as the two-thirds vote to convict on impeachment.
"The Framers were realists who wrote the Constitution in the shadow of the Articles of Confederation, the disastrously ineffective system of government that allowed a minority of members of Congress to block the majority from acting. They had seen firsthand that allowing a minority to block the majority did not promote deliberation. Instead, they warned that it would create an irresistible temptation for (what Hamilton called) a 'pertinacious minority' to sabotage the majority, leading to 'contemptible compromises of the public good' and eroding majority rule, which they widely regarded as the 'first principle' of the democracy they created."
Majority rule does not determine what passes in the Senate nowadays. Jentleson gives as an example a vote in 2012 on a bill to require universal background checks before buying a gun. The bill had bipartisan support and 90 percent approval in the polls. It got 55 votes. The majority was defeated by 45 senators who represented 38 percent of the population. In short, the minority rules.
Isn't that how a "republic" is supposed to work? The Framers understand democracy to mean direct democracy as in Athens. They understood republic to mean what we call a democracy today, where people elect representatives who make the laws.
James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, called majority rule “the republican principle.” He wrote, “In Republics, where the people govern themselves, and where, of course, the majority govern...The vital principle of Republican Government is the lex majoris partis, the will of the majority.”
Thomas Jefferson believed that majority rule was “founded in common law as well as common right” and “is the natural law of every assembly of men.” TJ wrote to Madison: “It is my principle that the will of the majority should always prevail.”
The first constitution of the United States was the Articles of Confederation. It contained a fatal flaw, namely that support from two-thirds of the states was required to pass tax and spending legislation. The result was gridlock. Consequently, the Framers were determined not to repeat the mistake of a supermajority requirement. At the Con-Con, proposals by southern delegates for supermajority votes for regular legislation were defeated.
In Federalist #22, Hamiton rejected the arguments for a supermajority rule, Madison did likewise in Federalist #58. If a minority was allowed to block a majority, Madison writes, then “in all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule; the power would be transferred to the minority.”
Minority rule is exactly what filibuster fans favor, even though it is contrary to original intent. Senators representing as little as 11 percent of the population can obstruct the will of colleagues representing 89 percent of Americans.
Since the filibuster is not in the COTUS, where did it come from? To make a long story short, the filibuster came into existence in the nineteenth century, "as part of white supremacists’ mission to preserve slavery, and then their efforts to strengthen it during the early twentieth century to maintain Jim Crow. (Then) the modern, post–civil rights Senate began applying the filibuster to a broadening range of bills and issues, and married the old vision of minority rule with new, rigid leadership structures."
Details are in the book about the roles of John C. Calhoun and Richard Russell in creating the filibuster. The good news is that unlike some other political problems, fixing the filibuster does not require amending the COTUS. Weakening or abolishing the filibuster takes only 51 votes.
It was weakened in 2013 after an historic and unprecedented number of presidential nominees had been blocked by GOP filibusters.There had been 82 Obama nominees blocked, compared to a total of 86 nominees for all previous presidents. Consequently, Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the so-called nuclear option and changed Senate rules to exempt nominees, except for the SCOTUS, from the filibuster.
Negative partisanship combined with the filibuster gives conservatives a distinct advantage. Unlike Democrats, Republicans aren't trying to pass sweeping new programs for health care or other things. Under the current filibuster, the GOP can still achieve its top three priorities: approval of tax cuts, approval of conservative judicial nominees, and the ability to prevent Democratic social programs from passing.
For Democrats, the filibuster is a lose, lose proposition When in the minority, they can't stop GOP tax cuts and judicial nominees. When in the majority, they can't enact social programs. Finding 41 votes to block legislation is much easier than finding 60 votes to pass it. Advantage GOP..
President Obama rightly called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic.” It clearly delayed passage of civil rights legislation for many years, and prevented an anti-lynching law for generations. It preserved the Electoral College in 1969, and continues to primarily benefit white conservatives.
The plan for reform is simple: Restore the requirement for actual debate to replace the anonymous hold. This gives the minority every opportunity to state its case. Then amend the rules to provide a cloture vote after a certain number of days, using a simple majority.
Hamilton and Madison were right in opposing a supermajority requirement. The argument that it promotes compromise does not apply in our era of hyper-polarization and negative partisanship. The country would benefit from a productive, functioning Senate. ###
KILL has three entwined narratives. In the first, it describes the Framers’ expectation for the dynamic of the Senate, which was, basically, majority rule after extensive debate. In the second, KILL examines the history and gradual development of the filibuster, which was an unknown concept to the Framers. Finally, its third narrative examines the disastrous consequences of the filibuster over the last 40 years. Not a pretty picture, to be sure.
For me, the most interesting section of KILL provides details and data on filibuster use. Writes Jentleson:
o “Since 2008, Democrats and Republicans have held unified control of Washington for two years each… This allows us to isolate which bills would have become law had they not been blocked by filibusters in the Senate. Excluding appropriations bills, Republican filibusters blocked fifteen Democratic-sponsored bills from becoming law, while Democratic filibusters blocked six Republican bills from becoming law.”
o “Of the six Republican bills blocked by Democratic filibusters, three were different versions of immigration deals McConnell tried to pass on a single day in 2018, one of which was a bipartisan bill supported by a mixture of Democrats and Republicans. Another of the bills blocked by Democrats was a 20-week abortion ban… The remaining two Republican bills blocked by Democratic filibusters since 2009 were a reauthorization of the Coast Guard and a tribal labor bill.”
o “On the other side of the ledger, the Democratic bills blocked by Republican filibusters included: a paycheck-fairness bill to reduce the wage disparity between men and women who perform the same work; the DREAM Act to protect undocumented immigrants who came to America as children from deportation; the DISCLOSE Act to expose the anonymous superrich donors pumping millions of dollars into our political system; a bill to allow public safety officers to collectively bargain and form unions; a bill to close tax loopholes that reward corporations for sending American jobs overseas; and an expansion of Social Security benefits.”
o “On top of all this, many observers at the time believed the climate change bill known as ‘cap-and-trade’ that passed the House in 2010 would have passed the senate, if not for the filibuster.”
Jentleson gets the final word. “The filibuster routinely stops our government from addressing problems long after expert solutions, political will, and public support exist to solve them. Nothing good happens when a nation’s most pressing problems are left to fester for years and sometimes decades. It is impossible to argue that it was anything but disastrous to wait to pass civil rights bills until decades after broad majorities of Americans, majorities in both houses of Congress, and presidents of both parties were ready for action. Today, the same is true for climate change, gun control, and many other issues where the cost of delay can be measured in human suffering and lost lives.”
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It is nothing of the sort, as this excellent book clearly demonstrates. It was never the Founders' intention to allow the minority to block the will of the majority. The filibuster was brought into use by that racist White supremacist, Calhoun, and perfected in the late twentieth century by another racist White supremacist, Richard Russell, as a device to block any recognition of the civil rights of Black Americans. It has been polished as a deadly weapon by Mitch McConnell who used it to thwart President Obama at every turn.
Adam Jentleson shows that the Senate has long been under the control of a group of White, affluent conservative senators representing as few as 35 per cent of the electorate in recent times. Profiting from the status quo, they have used their power to block any progress that would diminish their privileges. They have exploited the undemocratic nature of the Senate, with two seats for each state, regardless of size and excluding the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, more populous than many states. Their instrument of choice has become the filibuster which originally enabled a single member to delay legislation by interminable speechifying. In its modern form, the obstructionist no longer needs even to speak---by simply indicating his intention to filibuster the bill is sidetracked into oblivion. The most recent major example was the Affordable Care Act which was held hostage by the filibuster in defiance of president who had the support of up to 60 senators (at the outset of his terms) and commanded the backing of an overwhelming majority of the electorate. Another dismal example from the same era is the obdurate refusal of the Republican minority to allow the most modest controls of assault weapons, in defiance of the great majority of public opinion.
Thus the filibuster permits the minority to control the legislature, without even the trouble of debate.
It can easily be changed. Reid eliminated the filibuster for the appointment of judges, below the Supreme Court, and McConnell, when he took over the majority, eliminated it for the Supremes, permitting the appointment of Brett Cavanaugh. But it remains in place for legislation.
President Biden, as of this writing (February 2021) remains on record as being very reluctant to see the elimination of the filibuster, based no doubt on his remarkably long tenure in the Senate. Yet as it is being used indiscriminately to block his fulfilment of important election commitments his view may be changed.
Perhaps he should read Kill Switch. Highly recommended.