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Argument: The filibuster only became acceptable in recent decades

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Paul Krugman. "A dangerous dysfunction." New York Times. December 20, 2009: "Some people will say that it has always been this way, and that we’ve managed so far. But it wasn’t always like this. Yes, there were filibusters in the past — most notably by segregationists trying to block civil rights legislation. But the modern system, in which the minority party uses the threat of a filibuster to block every bill it doesn’t like, is a recent creation."

Jean Edward Smith. "Filibusters: The Senate's Self-Inflicted Wound." New York Times. March 1, 2009: "Historically, the filibuster was a last-ditch tactic used by an obstructionist minority to prevent passage of a bill by taking advantage of Senate rules that permitted unlimited debate. A measure would simply be 'talked to death.' It was widely regarded as misuse of the rules, and was used sparingly. The origin of the word 'filibuster' reflected its outlaw status. It was first applied to buccaneers in the West Indies who preyed on Spanish commerce to South America. According to Webster’s, a filibusterer was 'a freebooter or soldier of fortune against a foreign country with which his own country is at peace.'

In the entire 19th century, including the struggle against slavery, fewer than two dozen filibusters were mounted. In F.D.R.’s time, the device was employed exclusively by Southerners to block passage of federal anti-lynching legislation. Between 1933 and the coming of the war, it was attempted only twice. Under Eisenhower and J.F.K., the pattern continued. In the eight years of the Eisenhower administration, only two filibusters were mounted. Under Kennedy there were four. The number more than doubled under Lyndon Johnson, but the primary issue continued to be civil rights. Except for exhibitionists, buffoons and white southerners determined to salvage racial segregation, the filibuster was considered off limits.

But with the enactment of major civil rights legislation in the 1960s and ’70s, the issue of equality for African-Americans faded from the Senate’s agenda, and the filibuster shed its racist image. Increasingly senators of all ideological persuasions began to consider the filibuster an acceptable weapon. By the time of the Carter and Reagan administrations, the frequency of filibusters had increased to 20 per year. “Filibusters are a necessary evil,” said Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia said in 1988. “They must be tolerated lest the Senate lose its special strength and become a mere appendage to the House of Representatives.”

It was during the Clinton years that the dam broke. In the 103rd Congress (1993-1994), 32 filibusters were employed to kill a variety of presidential initiatives ranging from campaign finance reform to grazing fees on federal land. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of Senate filibusters varied between 20 and 37 per session, a bipartisan effort.

So ingrained has the filibuster become, that in 2005 when Senate Majority Leader William Frist talked about amending the Senate’s rules to ban filibusters on judicial nominations, the move was universally dubbed the “nuclear option,” evoking images of Armageddon and total destruction.

The routine use of the filibuster as a matter of everyday politics has transformed the Senate’s legislative process from majority rule into minority tyranny. Leaving party affiliation aside, it is now possible for the senators representing the 34 million people who live in the 21 least populous states — a little more than 11 percent of the nation’s population — to nullify the wishes of the representatives of the remaining 88 percent of Americans."

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