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Richard Nixon, Filibuster Foe—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was posted on nytimes.com on March 16, 2010.

Richard Nixon, Filibuster Foe
By Ian Ayres ’86

In this interesting article from the American Prospect, Bruce Ackerman reveals how in 1957 Lyndon Johnson opposed an effort of Vice-President (and President of Senate) to reform the filibuster rule:

It now takes 60 Senators (three-fifths) to end a filibuster, but for most of the 20th century, a full two-thirds majority was necessary. Worse yet, unanimous consent was required by Senate rules to change this. The two-thirds provision seemed cemented into the system beyond repair.

Until Richard Nixon came along. When the Senate opened for business in 1957, he took the chair as vice president and urged the chamber to rethink the very foundations of its rules. The Senate traditionally considered itself a continuing body, which automatically inherited its old rules without any formal action.

This was a mistake, Nixon said. Since one-third of its membership is renewed every two years, the Senate should explicitly vote on its rules when it organized itself at the beginning the session. If a simple majority wanted to reduce the two-thirds rule, it was free to do so.

Nixon’s ruling was a bombshell. If his view were accepted by the Senate, 51 Senators could impose a strong civil-rights bill on the South.

This put Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson in a tough spot. He was willing to join a broad effort for a weak civil-rights measure, but he was unprepared to sacrifice his Southern colleagues by campaigning against the filibuster. He refused to support Nixon’s pronouncement. Instead, he asked the Senate to table any vote on its rules and follow its traditional practice of simply inheriting the existing rule book in a passive fashion. When Johnson’s motion won the day, he frustrated Nixon’s effort to use the Senate presidency as an engine for filibuster reform.

Talk about your hidden side of everything.