Wednesday, June 9, 2021

I just happen to have Senator Byrd right here with me, and...


Byrd never managed to finish college until he was an actual United States senator, but he did by God (as in "West By God Virginia") do it, and law school before he earned the B.A., but he did work as a professional musician, and if you think I don't respect him you can fight me.

Hi Senator Manchin, we've been hearing a lot about how much you rightly revere your great predecessor, Robert Byrd, and I thought you might appreciate some of the beautiful tribute given by then Rules Committee Chair Schumer as Byrd's body lay in repose on the Lincoln Catafalque in the Senate chamber, 1 July 2010, when you were still governor of West Virginia, a few weeks before you entered the race to replace him, as Majority Leader Reid had asked you to do for the party's sake, where he spoke about what was probably Byrd's last major service to the Senate, when, 92 years old and rapidly failing, he testified on the need to reform the filibuster, at a time, not long after the successful passage of the Affordable Care Act on a reconciliation basis, when a violently partisan Republican minority leader, Mitch McConnell, was doing whatever he could to stop the Democratic majority from doing its work, and in essence holding the country hostage:

at a hearing of the Rules Committee where we are now having a series of hearings under the suggestion of the Presiding Officer and leadership to decide whether we should reform the filibuster rule and what we should do about it. Senator Byrd, frail at that point, about a month ago, came to our hearing room. He sat next to me and then gave one of the best orations I have heard in a committee. He was 92. He turned the pages of his speech himself. That wasn't so easy for him. It was clearly--knowing the way he thought and his way of speaking--written completely by him. It was an amazing statement. It was impassioned, erudite, balanced, and, as the Presiding Officer remembers, it electrified the room. It was an amazing tour de force. The man cared so much about the Senate. Despite the fact he was ailing, there he was because he loved the Senate. His remarks, if my colleagues read them, were balanced. He understood the problems, but he understood the traditions, and he tried, as usual, to weave the two together.

Byrd's opening statement to the Rules Committee, published 5/19/10 in The Hill, seems kind of relevant today:

During this 111th Congress in particular the minority has threatened to filibuster almost every matter proposed for Senate consideration.   I find this tactic contrary to each Senator’s duty to act in good faith.
I share the profound frustration of my constituents and colleagues as we confront this situation.  The challenges before our nation are far too grave, and too numerous, for the Senate to be rendered impotent to address them, and yet be derided for inaction by those causing the delay.
Sounds familiar, huh? Not that Byrd chastised the Obama administration for offering such partisan legislation. Indeed, he had gotten used to casting pretty partisan votes in recent years, from his brave opposition to Bush's Iraq war right down to that Affordable Care Act, where as the necessary 60th Democrat after the death of his friend Edward Kennedy he had himself wheeled in, wrapped in warm clothing, for every vote on the health care bill and the needed raising of the debt ceiling. On the other hand, as I'm sure you suspected, Senator Byrd didn't think abolishing the filibuster was a good idea. On the contrary!
There are many suggestions as to what we should do.  I know what we must not do. We must never, ever, tear down the only wall — the necessary fence — this nation has against the excesses of the Executive Branch and the resultant haste and tyranny of the majority.
(I have to say that in my view, beyond the essential protections of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the existence of the Senate itself, with its ridiculously disproportionate representation between states with populations tiny and enormous, is more than enough of a wall against the tyranny of the majority—I'm of the more conventional view that the filibuster is a mistake brought on by sloppy legislation in 1806 which I'd be happy to abolish, but in respect to Senator Byrd I'd like to let that pass.)
The path to solving our problem lies in our thoroughly understanding it.  Does the difficulty reside in the construct of our rules or in the ease of circumventing them?
Byrd's thought reverts immediately to the theory of what the filibuster is supposed to be—and to the failure of the institution to live up to that, a Rectification of Names question, if I can be so immodest:
A true filibuster is a fight, not a threat or a bluff.  For most of the Senate’s history, Senators motivated to extend debate had to hold the floor as long as they were physically able. The Senate was either persuaded by the strength of their arguments or unconvinced by either their commitment or their stamina.  True filibusters were therefore less frequent, and more commonly discouraged, due to every Senator’s understanding that such undertakings required grueling personal sacrifice, exhausting preparation, and a willingness to be criticized for disrupting the nation’s business.
Nobody's doing that any more, in Byrd's opinion, because the corruption of the institution leaves them no time:
Now, unbelievably, just the whisper of opposition brings the “world’s greatest deliberative body” to a grinding halt.  Why? Because this once highly respected institution has become overwhelmingly consumed by a fixation with money and media. Gone are the days when Senators Richard Russell and Lyndon Johnson, and Speaker Sam Rayburn gathered routinely for working weekends and couldn’t wait to get back to their chambers on Monday morning.
Now every Senator spends hours every day, throughout the year and every year, raising funds for re-election and appearing before cameras and microphones.  Now the Senate often works three-day weeks, with frequent and extended recess periods, so Senators can rush home to fundraisers scheduled months in advance.
And Byrd has lots of ideas on how to combat it—how to force the filibuster to live up to the job it's supposed to be doing.
Forceful confrontation to a threat to filibuster is undoubtedly the antidote to the malady.  Most recently, Senate Majority Leader Reid announced that the Senate would stay in session around-the-clock and take all procedural steps necessary to bring financial reform legislation before the Senate.  As preparations were made and cots rolled out, a deal was struck within hours and the threat of filibuster was withdrawn.  
I heartily commend the Majority Leader for this progress, and I strongly caution my colleagues as some propose to alter the rules to severely limit the ability of a minority to conduct a filibuster.  I know what it is to be Majority Leader, and wake up on a Wednesday morning in November, and find yourself a Minority Leader.
I also know that current Senate Rules provide the means to break a filibuster.  I employed them in 1977 to end the post-cloture filibuster of natural gas deregulation legislation. This was the roughest filibuster I have experienced during my fifty-plus years in the Senate, and it produced the most-bitter feelings. Yet some important new precedents were established in dealing with post-cloture obstruction.  In 1987, I successfully used Rules 7 and 8 to make a non-debatable motion to proceed during the morning hour.  No leader has attempted this technique since, but this procedure could be and should be used.
All I'm saying is if Robert Byrd were in the Senate today, it's not hard to guess what he'd be doing—he'd be figuring out ways to get around the threat or bluff of a filibuster without threatening that institution, and he would get that John Lewis Act and For The People Act and American Jobs Plan and American Jobs Plan to the president's desk ASAP, in line with the desires of the people of West By God Virginia, as Majority Leader Schumer said
There are few Senators in the history of this body who fought for their state as hard as Senator Byrd did. He never forgot his roots and he most certainly never forgot his fellow West Virginians. All across West Virginia men and women are able to realize the America dream because Robert Byrd fought for them. He was unrelenting and unapologetic in his desire to improve the lives of West Virginians by making generous investments in infrastructure and research. His efforts afforded generations of West Virginians good paying jobs, allowing them to provide for their families and have the dignity that all Americans deserve.

and if you're having any trouble with the technical issues, Schumer is your friend, who knows exactly what Byrd was talking about. OK? Let's get to it, and make West By God Virginia proud.

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