Republicans Say That the Senate Historian Opposes Filibuster Reform. Not Quite.

Lamar Alexander makes mistakes now and again.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Lamar Alexander joined the Senate in 2003, fairly late into a career that started in the Tennessee governor’s mansion and ended (for a while) with a failed presidential bid. But he’s taken to the new role, becoming maybe the Republicans’ most resolute defender of filibuster rules. Again and again, when Harry Reid would threaten a change to the cloture system, Alexander would take the floor, remind everyone that he, too, had once been filibustered (for the Education post in Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet), and warn of the darkness that would rise if the minority lost the ability to filibuster everything.

Alexander has condensed those thoughts into a Politico op-ed. It makes one strategic mistake: It quotes from a 2013 history of the Senate, co-written by the body’s official historian, Richard A. Baker, and journalist Neil MacNeil.

“Whatever the unsavory aspects of the word and the tactics,” Baker and MacNeil write, “the filibuster then and later helped shape the Senate into the most powerful legislative body in the world.”

Out of context it does sound like the Senate’s historian is endorsing Alexander’s view. That’s not quite what the book says. Baker and MacNeal reflect on the 19th-century (i.e., not constitutional) origins of the filibuster, and credit it with stopping one bad idea—a 1879, post-Reconstruction proposal by Southern Democrats “to prohibit using army argulars as a ‘police force’ in Southern elections.” From there, they track its use through the pre-civil rights era and into the 1960s. So, the “helping shape the Senate” line refers to the filibuster as it looked a century-plus in the past, before it was altered in the 1970s. At that point, the authors write, “the filibuster became an entirely different mechanism, freed at last from the onus of racial discrimination, but caught up in its revised use as an instrument of even more frequent legislative gridlock.”

What happened next? According to the authors, the coalescing of the Democrats and the Republicans into one basically liberal party and one basically conservative party turned the filibuster into a new and ugly beast.

Over the next four decades, this extreme partisan polarization contributed to an excessive use of the filbuster by large minorities, including, on occasions, the entire minority party. Beginning with its 2013 session, the Senate faced the urgent challenge of making long-needed changes, such as eliminating filibusters on routine procedural motions, while preserving its stature as a place for sober second thought, a place where the simple possibility of filibusters will continue to force senators to strive for consensus.

Right there, the authors acknowledge that the January 2013 filibuster reform was a positive thing. The book was published before the filibuster was ended for executive branch nominees, but when they referred to “long-needed changes” to correct “excessive use,” I’m guessing the authors meant exactly that.