Political Animal


May 25, 2012 1:50 PM Robert Caro Is Not a Big Fan of the Filibuster

By Ryan Cooper

Alec MacGillis was giving Robert Caro some grief about his “great man” fetish and support of the filibuster the other day:

The Senate’s problem is not a lack of “genius.” (After all, it has Chuck Schumer.) As Caro surely knows, the problem goes deeper than that—and has a lot more to do with what these guys are talking about. (And in fact, Caro arguably bears some responsibility when it comes to the Senate’s systematic flaws. The Journal interview notes: “In 2004, when Senate Republicans were threatening to end Democrats’ filibustering of judicial nominees by implementing ‘the nuclear option,’ Kennedy called Mr. Caro “out of the blue” and asked if he would come to Washington, D.C., and explain to the freshman senators the importance of preserving the filibuster.”)

I agree about the “great man” problem, but argued that this was actually Caro doing a bit of logrolling to get Ted Kennedy to help him with the research for his book, which he did after the filibuster speech. In support of that I present a nice little bit of history on the origin of the word “filibuster,” from Caro’s Master of the Senate:

And there took place therefore so many “extended discussion” of measures to keep them from coming to a vote that the device got a name, “filibuster,” from the Dutch word vrijbuiter which means “freebooter” or “pirate,” and which passed into the Spanish as filibustero, because the sleek, swift ship used by caribbean pirates was called a filibote, and into legislative parlance because the device was, after all, a pirating, or hijacking, of the very heart of the legislative process.

Caro spends a great deal of time in the book talking about how reactionary Southern racists in the Senate, particularly Richard Russell, abused the filibuster to stymie try after try at civil rights legislation. It’s scathing, but a great read. And at the end, after Johnson has completely upended the rules of the Senate, and used his position to ram through the first civil rights bill in a century, it’s pretty obvious where Caro’s sympathies lie.

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Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • boatboy_srq on May 25, 2012 2:01 PM:

    reactionary Southern racists in the Senate

    You mean like McConnell and DeMint?

    Seems to me they need a little scathing of their own.

  • Paul Papanek on May 25, 2012 2:43 PM:

    Thanks for the reminder about Caro's Master of the Senate. Regarding Senator Richard Russell -- I've often thought that if I ever had the power to achieve it, I would arrange for Russell's gold-lettered name to be chiseled off the Senate Office Building. Our democratic institutions ought not to memorialize a person who now is so clearly seen as a moral monster of American history.

  • nerd on May 25, 2012 2:51 PM:

    The filibuster is an effective tool but any tool can be misused and that is certainly happening with the filibuster.

    It is absolutely appropriate to have a means for the minority to express their discontent with an issue. The filibuster was intended to be the exceptional case where the issue being pushed by the majority was too much for the minority to accept. With the hyper-partisan atmosphere we are currently experiencing the Right cannot accept anything and so the exception is now the rule.

    We need to figure out how to have a mechanism that allows the minority to object but keep it from being abused. Eliminating the filibuster would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Finding a way to reduce the abuse of the filibuster would be appropriate.

    Remember, at some time in the future the Right will be in the majority in the Senate and having the filibuster will be valuable to have. Just because the Republicans abuse it doesn't mean that the Democrats shouldn't have it when they need it.

  • Craig on May 25, 2012 5:30 PM:

    "Just because the Republicans abuse it doesn't mean that the Democrats shouldn't have it when they need it."

    Find one example from American history where the filibuster was used by progressives to thwart terrible conservative legislation. I'll match you with about a dozen civil-rights bills filibustered, and that's not getting into the last twenty years of abuse.

    Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was just a movie, remember.