“This is not a particularly uplifting history,” Adam Jentleson warns at the beginning of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate, his new book about partisan dysfunction in the Senate and how to fix it. The violent Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol illustrates his point. Senate Democrats began the week exultant that twin victories in Georgia would give them control of the chamber under President Joe Biden. They ended it in an outraged clamor to expel two Republicans, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, and likely headed for a second impeachment trial of Donald Trump.
Jentleson wasn’t surprised. “What we’re seeing today is really the culmination of centuries-long historical trends,” he said the day after the attack, as images of the pro-Trump mob blanketed cable television. For seven years, Jentleson, 39, had an up-close view of growing Senate dysfunction as a top aide to former Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. He left with a healthy contempt for how both parties operate and a clear diagnosis of the institution’s primary ailment. The success of Biden’s presidency, he believes, will hinge on whether Democrats recognize it and commit to reform.
Kill Switch traces the rise of toxic partisanship— and the ebb of productive legislation—to the emergence of the filibuster in the middle of the 19th century. In Jentleson’s telling, it’s a long, sordid tale. The filibuster wasn’t envisioned by the framers. It isn’t in the Constitution. “It arose as the need to maintain slavery led Southerners to search for new ways to defy the majority,” he says. Throughout most of the 20th century it was used almost exclusively by segregationists to stop civil rights legislation.
But in the 1970s it began to be deployed on other issues and shed its racist taint. Over the years, canny insiders like Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, the Democratic segregationist, quietly tweaked Senate rules to change the filibuster from a measure that guaranteed the minority an opportunity to debate bills (a delaying mechanism) to one that obligated the majority to amass 60 votes to end that debate and proceed to a vote—a requirement that could be used to kill all but the most popular legislation.
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