Adam Jentleson, Kill Switch: the Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, (NY: Liveright Publishing Corp, 2021) 254 pages
In his new book, Kill Switch, Adam Jentleson writes a history of the filibuster as it evolved and continues to evolve for use by a Senate minority to stall and defeat a majority. Jentleson worked as a staff member for Senator Harry Reid from 2010 until Reid retired in 2017. The book has nine chapters between an introduction and conclusion. Part I, the Rise of the Filibuster, has four chapters with the history of filibustering from its early 19th century use until 1964. Part II, Tyranny of the Minority, has five chapters explaining the use and abuse of the filibuster between 1964 and the present.
The rules that govern Senate operation have varied over the years, but Jentleson documents the filibuster rules and how their use has damaged democracy and majority rule from one era to another. The Part I chapters begin with a selection of quotations from the Federalist Papers to develop the arguments of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and others from the 1787 Philadelphia convention. Their arguments supported majority rule by elected representatives; there was no filibuster in 1787. Readers learn how a “previous question” rule in the initial Senate rules worked to end debate and proceed to a vote.
Next we meet Senator John C. Calhoun and his idea that Senators are entitled to hold the floor for unlimited debate. Jentleson devotes more than twenty pages for discussing the 19th century Senate contest over majority rule between Senator Calhoun and his allies and Senator Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and their more numerous allies. Their inconclusive contest continued into the 20th Century when readers meet Rule 22 and its 1913 origins in the Wilson administration.
Rule 22 allows senators to call for a vote to end a filibuster; a vote they defined as “Cloture.” While the previous question rule wrapped up debate Rule 22 required a vote by a 2/3’s super majority to end debate. The committee that devised the rule called it a tool to “terminate successful filibustering” except that it turned into a powerful method for the south to block legislation intended to provide constitutional rights to the black community. Here Jentleson develops 1922, 1937, and 1940 efforts to pass an anti-lynching bill and 1942, 1944, and 1946 efforts to end the poll tax. All were defeated by southern filibusters.
We meet Senator Richard Russell of Georgia in these contests and his determination to use the filibuster to get his minority way over civil rights. Jentleson reviews the history of failed attempts by Senator Paul Douglas, Hubert Humphrey and others to get rid of Rule 22. Discussion shifts to Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas and his successful efforts to cozy up to Russell. Johnson realizes he cannot be elected president as a southern racist and Jentleson takes his readers through the Johnson transformation to civil rights advocate. The Master of the Senate ended a southern filibuster for the first time ever and steered the 1964 Civil Rights Bill in law.
The Part II chapters explain what happens “when the filibuster was streamlined so that it could be used against any issue, by leaders wielding unprecedented top-down control.” After describing Senator Harry Reid’s successful 2013 scheme to end the filibuster for presidential nominations, which the press dubbed “going nuclear,” Jentleson identifies those in the super-minority that obstruct the Senate. They are WWAC – White, Wealthy, Anti-Choice, and Conservative. Discussion includes their connection to racial prejudice.
We meet the Tea Party of 2009 and some examples of their obstructionist tactics, which Jentleson argues resulted from using the polarizing innovations of Jesse Helms. Readers learn of Helms direct mail fundraising, filibustering methods and polarizing views. Discussion includes his help electing Ronald Reagan and his choice to attack abortion as a source of political power.
In Chapter 7, the Means of Control, Jentleson returns to Senate history with a brief narrative of Senate leadership through the years until getting to Lyndon Johnson’s innovations of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Johnson turned the Senate majority leader into a position with legislative power by doling out committee assignments, but there would be more changes after 1980.
Between 1980 and 2018 the Senate changed parties nine times, giving Republicans a chance to apply the Johnson methods for their own purposes. However, the “insecure majorities” turned the Senate into a continuous campaign of political attacks and aggressive fund raising. Harry Reid took over as Senate majority leader for the 110th Congress in 2007 and Jentleson narratives his strategies and methods in the Senate, described as the greatest consolidation of congressional power since Newt Gingrich ruled the House.”
Readers meet Mitch McConnell during this discussion - lawyer, former state judge, and Senator from Kentucky since 1985 – and learn of his flip-flopping views for and against campaign finance and the filibuster. After using the filibuster against Senator McCain’s campaign reform and losing he decided to support an end to the filibuster to prevent Democrats from blocking Republican judicial appointments. The Democrats, always playing defense, would not go along. Jentleson documents all the judges the Democrats opposed were confirmed anyway.
Harry Reid continued as Senate majority leader through the 113th Congress of 2015-2017. Jentleson narrates these years where Harry Reid struggles to get President Obama’s agenda and nominations through the Senate. These were the years of unprecedented Republican obstruction. The narrative has the details of the Harry Reid versus Mitch McConnell battle over health care, nominations including the Merrick Garland nomination and others.
These later chapters explain the new filibuster and how it empowered people like McConnell to block everything, anytime. After 1964 the filibuster lost its southern, civil rights identity after rules changes allowed the Senate to move to other business without ending a filibuster. More changes allow the Senate majority leader to set the floor schedule for the Senate by unanimous consent. The filibuster lost its name entirely as a single objector could have a bill taken off the schedule by placing “a Hold.” An email “hotline” allows any Senator to place a hold as an unaccountable and unpublicized secret.
In addition to the filibuster Jentleson fills in the obstructionist details of the Obama years. The details include McConnell’s efforts to unite the Republican establishment with the Tea Party extremists and his efforts to pacify Trump with everyone. McConnell succeeded by comes off as a competitor without a conscience. In conclusion there are a few suggestions to save the Senate. Getting rid of the filibuster heads the list, which could be done easily. He sees the filibusters as the prime cause of minority rule, although not the only one. The majority leader’s absolute power over the Senate schedule is another.
The book does a good job documenting the history and destructive effect of the filibuster. It reads easily and sources are cited in notes, allowing further reading. The political history of the Congress over the last thirty years proves the Democrats have failed miserably while defending the filibuster, a conclusion I had before reading this book. I benefited from previously reading Martin B Gold & Dimple Gupta’s 2005 piece cited in discussion: “The Constitutional Option to Change Senate Rules and Procedures: A Majoritarian Means to Overcome the Filibuster”. Even so there was lots of filibuster material new to me and I especially like having my conclusions confirmed with the documented account and evidence here.
The filibuster can only be defensive but a poor defense at that, even accepting defense as a good strategy, which I do not believe it is in 2022 if ever. The Democrats need to be deciding and defending what they think is right. While Jentleson worked for Senator Reid and clearly admires him, Reid’s nuclear option feels defensive and timid. Democrats need to move over to offense. Kill Switch will help convince you of that.