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'Kill Switch' Explores How Senate Minority Uses Filibuster To Protect Its Interests


When classic movie fans think of a filibuster on the U.S. Senate floor, they might think of this.


JAMES STEWART: (As Jefferson Smith) Because this country is bigger than you or me or anything else. Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here.

CORNISH: Well, a lot has changed since actor Jimmy Stewart made the filibuster the centerpiece of the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington." Author Adam Jentleson knows that because he worked on Capitol Hill as deputy chief of staff to the former Democratic majority leader Senator Harry Reid.

ADAM JENTLESON: Gone are the days of the Jimmy Stewart speaking at length to try to block the powers that be from passing some egregious bill. The filibuster today is silent but deadly. Any senator can, simply by sending an email, impose a filibuster that doesn't just delay a bill, but raises the threshold from a simple majority for passage to a supermajority. So filibusters today have been completely divorced from the idea of debate. They don't happen on the floor. They happen out of sight.

CORNISH: Jentleson has written a book called "Kill Switch" about the rise of the modern Senate. In it, he traces the path of the filibuster through history.

JENTLESON: The filibuster did not exist when the Senate was first invented. It didn't come into existence until after all the Founding Fathers had passed away. 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. And it has always existed and been wielded primarily by senators who were interested in overriding progress against slavery and then overriding progress on civil rights. The filibuster is inextricably linked to the drive to oppress Black Americans. And today, it continues to primarily empower reactionary, conservative and predominantly white minority in Congress who benefit far more from its use than anybody else.

CORNISH: Democrats have won the majority in part because of runoff wins in Georgia - in fact, a Black senator now coming from that state, which is a first. Should Democrats be excited to have the majority?

JENTLESON: Absolutely. I mean, look. It's a narrow majority. It doesn't get much more narrow than what we have right now. It's 50-50. And Democrats have the majority because the vice president breaks a tie. That's not a lot of margin to work with. However, it is incredibly important because it determines who runs committees. And it probably guarantees that most of Biden's nominees, both to the executive branch and his Cabinet and to the judicial bench, can get confirmed. All of those things now, which have massive implications for policy, are going to be a lot easier for Democrats.

As far as legislation is concerned, it will still be a very hard slog. But it does open up a lot of possibilities simply by having Democrats in control of the committees and by having them be able to set the agenda on the floor.

CORNISH: So let me ask, should Democrats end the filibuster when it comes to legislation, an option that is casually called the nuclear option?

JENTLESON: Yes, I think they should. It may take some time to develop the political will to do it. Right now, there are a number of Democratic senators who are somewhat reluctant, but there aren't that many of them. I look at that and I see only a few votes that need to be worked on. The history of reform is paved with senators who swore they would never do it and then come around. It's a question of posture for the Biden administration. And they can try their approach, and hopefully bipartisan cooperation will be forthcoming. But if it's not, I think there will be a question of whether Democrats are willing to pursue reform in order to deliver the solutions that this country desperately needs or whether they're willing to basically give up and accept that nothing's going to get done.

CORNISH: But to challenge this for a second, we saw that there were some Democrats who really regretted when the former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got rid of the judicial filibuster. And so we saw what it can mean when the minority party is deprived of some of these kind of rules that they can use to fight legislation. Are you saying this because soon your party is going to be in a position of power?

JENTLESON: Well, I wrote this book when we were out of power. I would be advocating for the reforms in it one way or the other. But I think that you really have to step back and look at this on balance because there is no question that the filibuster, both right now and in the last few years under Trump and historically, have always benefited the side of reactionary forces and the side of conservatives far more than it benefits the side of progress and the side of the liberals.

The actual number of things that would have been blocked by Democrats if the filibuster had been in place under Trump are actually relatively low. Most of what Republicans wanted to do, they were able to do through end runs around the filibuster that already exist in the Senate rules. Many of those paths don't address liberal priorities in the same way because liberals tend to want to do bigger things with government. Liberals primarily benefit from passing big legislation, expanding the safety net, expanding civil rights and those sorts of things. Most of those actions are only capable of being done through legislation. So it's much easier to benefit from the ability to block things if you're a conservative.

CORNISH: Adam Jentleson is former deputy chief of staff to Democrat Harry Reid and the author of "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy."

Thank you for your time.

JENTLESON: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.