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Dead Racists, the Filibuster, and the Debt Ceiling

A conversation about what’s standing in the way of progress towards an inclusive democracy and a just economy.

The following is a transcript of a conversation between Demos Associate Directors of Policy and Research Lebaron Sims and Laura Williamson. Lebaron and Laura discuss the twin crises of our democracy and our economy, and how obstructionist lawmakers in Congress have used racist tools like the filibuster and the austerity-driven debt ceiling to prevent passage of popular and urgent bills that would move us toward an inclusive democracy and a just economy.

Lebaron: Laura—we made it through another year! But with COVID cases creeping back up and a big senatorial election here in Georgia coming up next year, it feels like we’re back where we were as we closed out 2020. Now the debt ceiling’s back in the news, and it seems like every week there’s a new story about some pretty popular policy stalling in Congress. I’m exhausted. How are you holding up?

Laura: I’m feeling that exhaustion and frustration, too. As a voting rights advocate, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that we started the year with armed white supremacists trying to upend our democracy and yet, here we are, nearly 12 months later, and Congress still hasn’t passed federal legislation to protect our fundamental right to vote and strengthen our democracy.

So why haven’t these bills passed? What gives?

Lebaron: Yeah, it’s disheartening to see Congress stand by and watch as states across the country pass laws that restrict access to the vote. But voting rights bills are hugely popular among voters of all stripes, right? I mean, we at Demos and so many of our partners have been working tirelessly on these bills for years. Folks been out in the streets calling for them; some are even getting arrested. So why haven’t these bills passed? What gives?

Laura: I think the answer is actually pretty simple: conservative obstruction. When it comes to the democracy legislation we’ve been working on—especially the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—the tool for that obstruction is the Senate filibuster.

Lebaron: The filibuster? I must have missed that episode of Schoolhouse Rock—how does it work?

The filibuster.

Laura: It’s the way a minority of senators—representing an even smaller notable minority of Americans—prevents the democratically-elected majority from passing laws that are wildly popular with the public. In addition to blocking voting rights bills, the filibuster is blocking:

  •  A bill that would institute common sense gun control, so children don’t keep being murdered at school and in the streets, day after day;
  • A bill that would protect the constitutional right to abortion;
  • A bill that would bring much-needed and long-overdue reforms to our racist criminal legal system.

And many other important bills that a strong majority of Americans support—not to mention countless others that lawmakers haven’t even bothered to introduce because they know the filibuster would kill them.

One more important thing about the filibuster: Sure, it’s a bug in our democracy, but unlike so many of the bugs in our democracy, it’s not a founding one. The filibuster is a later invention that ardent white supremacist senators, all from my homeland, the South, created solely to prevent Black Americans from building power in our political system.

Lebaron: I mean, didn’t Ben Franklin invent bifocals? So we know their vision is suspect, off top. If the filibuster isn’t a part of their vision for a nation of, by, and for white people, where does it come from, and how does it get lumped in with that vision?

Laura: The conditions at the root of the filibuster exist by accident. They stemmed from an 1806 rule change that was meant to simplify Senate procedure, not stymie it. Seriously—by accident. Of course, our country has never been short on powerful people who will exploit circumstances to advance their interests.

Enter John C. Calhoun, one of the most infamous senators ever, who created the filibuster as we know it and deployed that early filibuster to block efforts to end slavery and to enforce the Reconstruction amendments. Richard Russell, another white Southern senator who dedicated his life to the preservation of white supremacy, refined and carried it forward. Remember, this is the guy who said “any Southern white man worth a pinch of salt would give his all to maintain white supremacy,” and he gave his all to thwarting civil rights with the filibuster, including blocking anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws.

And today, Mitch McConnell, another son of the South, has perfected this tactic as the Senate minority’s favorite tool of obstructionism. I feel like folks don’t really need to know much else about the filibuster other than that its principal champion today is Mitch McConnell—a senator who will rightly go down in history alongside Calhoun and Russell.

Lebaron: You know Russell was governor of Georgia, right? His federal building here in Atlanta is next door to Dr. King’s federal building, right on MLK Drive, in Dr. King’s home city. Peak America.

Laura: But what about on the economic side, Lebaron? I know the Democrats are trying to pass Build Back Better through reconciliation precisely to avoid the problem of the filibuster. And yet it’s still proving difficult to pass this bill that would make a transformative investment in our economy and improve so many people's lives. Why?

Short answer? Racism and xenophobia.

Lebaron: Short answer? Racism and xenophobia, because white people will set their money on fire just to make sure Black and brown folks don’t get the chance to hold it. Long answer? I know this is a shocker, but it starts with your boy, John C. Calhoun. Those austerity narratives that get trotted out every time a big spending proposal hits the public discourse come from him and his allies in the Congress of the 1820s, and they haven’t really evolved that much since then.

Laura: I should have known it started with Calhoun, the man I’ve heard you describe as “the through line in virtually every bad and racist thing in our history.” Calhoun was... just the worst.

Lebaron: THE. WORST. He’s like the James Brown of structural racism—you can see his predecessors’ influence in his work, but everyone who came after him is just doing variations on his style.

Calhoun’s “states’ rights” framework is at least partly a response to calls for expanded federal infrastructure spending to stimulate the national economy. What’s funny is, he really wanted to increase federal spending to support the development of the rural South’s infrastructure. He saw the power of the multiplier effect, how federal dollars circulating would help the region invest, build, and grow. He changed his mind once he determined that the wealth, connection, and commerce that federal infrastructure spending would bring wasn’t worth potentially losing the ability to own, whip, and sell Black people.

So instead, he calls for what basically looks like an early version of the debt ceiling—a federal government that issues, spends, and collects money only so that it can manage crises and help states avoid accumulating debt. But not spending to build a more connected nation, and certainly not accumulating debt on its own. Then, about a hundred years later, in the 1910s, they actually do implement a federal debt ceiling.

So the debt ceiling and austerity narratives have always gone hand in hand?

Laura: So the debt ceiling and austerity narratives have always gone hand in hand? Or is it another case like the filibuster, where they’ve existed for a while, been used sparingly to target progress, and exploded in use in recent years as our politics have gotten more partisan?

Lebaron: I mean, you said it right there. The debt ceiling basically functions these days as a filibuster for appropriations, a way to obstruct progress by exploiting some silly procedural rule that makes no sense even by the confused logic of Capitol Hill. From Eisenhower to Reagan, the debt ceiling was just a formality that passed with bipartisan support, with occasional performative pushback that the overwhelming majority just rolled their eyes at. It’s not until Newt Gingrich and the 1990s that the debt ceiling specifically gets weaponized. He spun it into a way to talk about how the government was selling out its soul to foreign interests, and the only way to correct course was to cut spending on universal social programs—programs that get vilified because Black people benefit from them, but that benefit primarily white people in practice.

It’s not until Newt Gingrich and the 1990s that the debt ceiling specifically gets weaponized.

And just like with the filibuster, Mitch McConnell took Newt’s blueprint and ran with it. So now, the party of “fiscal responsibility” chooses to risk global economic collapse every couple of months by maxing out its credit card, and then refusing to pay the bill or increase its borrowing limit or stop spending all its money on trillion-dollar toys like war planes that can’t fly. And the people who can’t access disaster relief funds because FEMA or HUD have been gutted, or because a government shutdown yielded undercounting in the Census, get left pleading for scraps. Even though Congress got its act together to raise the debt ceiling this week, they didn’t deal with the underlying structural issue. Instead, they kicked the can down the road, all but ensuring that we’ll have this fight all over again in a year or two.

Laura: Right, so to go back a bit, the debt ceiling provides contemporary cover for policies that deprive the public—especially Black and brown people, and poor people of all races and ethnicities—of the investments we need and deserve. Investments like paid leave, quality and affordable health and child care, safe and affordable housing, good jobs that will help people survive and protect our planet. And on the democracy side, we've got the filibuster, which is also doing the bidding of a politic that’s been around since our founding—a white supremacist one that will stop at nothing to prevent Black and brown people from full political participation. The result of which is states passing dozens of laws that make it harder to vote, laws which, as we're already seeing in Georgia, are also working as intended.  

Why are these two roadblocks in our politics popping up right now?

Lebaron: So, it’s basically a dual-pronged strategy to prevent the multiracial, multi-ethnic majority from building or exerting any power at all? Is that why we've heard the “f word” more times this year than anyone’s ever wanted, and why the debt ceiling is once again front and center in the conversation? Why are these two roadblocks in our politics popping up right now?

Laura: It's a good question, since as you pointed out, the debt ceiling has been a thing for a century now, and obstructionists in the Senate have been leveraging the filibuster to block progress on wildly popular bills for years. I think the fact that these two are such prominent parts of the national discourse right now speaks to the extraordinary moment we find ourselves in politically and economically. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we find our democracy on the precipice of collapse, and that if we don’t act to protect battered access to the ballot and prevent election subversion, democracy as we know it will cease to exist. Similarly, our economy has been brought to the brink by the longstanding austerity approach to social policy, coupled with a devastating pandemic that has exposed and exacerbated already-extreme inequality and made a previously precarious situation nearly impossible for millions of low- and middle-income Americans.

While many of us may consider 2020 one of the most nightmarish years on record, it does have one thing going for it: it blasted the “equality and opportunity for all” façade clear off our democracy and economy, and in so doing, I think—I hope—created space for a conversation about what a truly inclusive democracy and an equitable economy would look like.

The weaponization of the filibuster and of the austerity narrative have always been two sides of the same white supremacist coin.

Lebaron: I think that’s right. I think the last few years have also shown us that the weaponization of the filibuster and of the austerity narrative have always been two sides of the same white supremacist coin. They’re part of the same desperate strategy to cling to power and to stave off progress toward a multiracial, inclusive democracy and a just, equitable economy. And the twin crises of the pandemic-induced recession and an all-out war on our electoral process exposed that strategy, and its principal propagator: the pro-corporation, anti-worker oligarchy seeking to consolidate power for themselves, at the expense of all the rest of us, especially Black and brown people.  

Laura: Agreed—the chaos and dysfunction in Congress, especially over the last few years, has been clarifying. It's become clear to me that, if we want anything to change, we have to pursue structural reforms to the way Congress functions—and when it comes to passing legislation to strengthen our democracy, that means ditching the filibuster. Thankfully, it seems that’s becoming clear to more and more Senators, too—and I’m hopeful they’ll figure out how they want to do it soon. But what about the debt ceiling? How do we deal with that?

We have to pursue structural reforms to the way Congress functions.

Lebaron: Get rid of it, just like the filibuster. It’s really that simple. It’s not necessary, it doesn’t do anything to deter spending—which, if we take its proponents at their word, is its singular purpose—and its continued existence is, like, Chekov’s gun for a global economic collapse. Even Janet Yellen, the Treasury Secretary and former Chair of the Federal Reserve, supports doing away with it. So let’s be done with it, and leave those stale austerity narratives in the trash bin with it.