Joe Biden says the need for election law reform is serious, but where are his actions?

Extraordinary pressure from the president was necessary for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, has Biden learned from LBJ?
President Joe Biden delivers a speech on Feb. 10, 2021. Photo: Lisa Ferdinando/DoD

First published at Common Dreams

President Biden’s voting rights speech this week in Philadelphia had most of the right words, calling Republican voter suppression efforts a “21st Century Jim Crow assault” and “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”

But Biden left out the only word that really counts: “Filibuster.”

Therefore, in the end, Biden’s speech reads like an eloquent statement of Presidential surrender. 

If the filibuster isn’t reformed so that voting rights laws can pass the Senate by a simple majority vote, then efforts to fight the dozens of voter suppression laws in Republican-controlled states will mostly fail and America will flunk “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”

As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said, “Why isn’t he [Biden] making the case for the American people? Why isn’t he strong-arming Manchin? Why isn’t he on the Hill buttonholing Senators? The most important voting rights bill in 56 years. His silence is breathtaking. I like Biden but he’s been AWOL on voting rights and ending the filibuster, which are critical to everything else America must achieve.”

Election expert Ronald Brownstein thinks that “Biden’s refusal to call for changes to the filibuster—or even to promise greater personal involvement in passing voting-rights” shows that Biden isn’t willing to spend serious political capital to protect democracy, saving his heavy-duty efforts for infrastructure.

And without spending serious political capital to reform the filibuster, The For The People Act and The John Lewis Voting Rights Act are dead in the water.

To have a chance of winning, Biden has to go full LBJ and do whatever it takes, including reforming the filibuster. As Michael O’Donnell wrote in The Atlantic:

“Days after Kennedy’s murder, Johnson displayed the type of leadership on civil rights that his predecessor lacked and that the other branches could not possibly match. He made the bold and exceedingly risky decision to champion the stalled civil-rights bill. It was a pivotal moment: without Johnson, a strong bill could not have passed. [Johnson biographer Robert] Caro writes that “during a late night conversation that lasted into the morning of November 27, when somebody tried to persuade Johnson not to waste time or capital on the lost cause of civil rights, the president replied, ‘Well what the hell’s the presidency for?’”

Quite simply, if Joe Biden (who knows the Senate almost as well as LBJ) is unwilling to act with the force of LBJ, he may well go down as the President under whom American democracy was lost.

LBJ had a filibuster problem, too. The 1964 filibuster lasted for 60 days until LBJ could twist enough arms and make enough deals to defeat it and pass the Civil Rights Act. As O’Donnell writes, “Johnson took off his jacket and tore into the legislative process intimately and tirelessly.”

And LBJ had his Joe Manchins to reckon with, too—Democratic Senators from the South were determined to block civil rights. Howard Smith, Dixiecrat chair of the House Rules Committee, bottled the Civil Rights bill up in committee: The only way to get it to the floor was through a rare “discharge petition” signed by a majority of House members. “Johnson made the petition his own personal crusade.” He immediately ordered the White House switchboard to get him on the phone with every persuadable House member, “wherever they could be found.” LBJ personally lined up an army of surrogates, including business and labor leaders, journalists and Congressional allies to go out and find the votes. He showed Martin Luther King a list of uncommitted House members and “told King to work on them.” He asked one union leader to “talk to every human you could” and say “if we fail on this then we fail on everything.”

As Dixiecrat Senator Richard Russell told a friend, “You know, we could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.”

Unfortunately, President Biden’s speech showed none of the determination of LBJ to do whatever it takes to pass Voting Rights legislation. And without the Presidential leadership shown by LBJ, including to overcome the filibuster, Voting Rights legislation will almost certainly fail, Republicans will use voter suppression and gerrymandering to win the 2022 and 2024 with a of minority voters, and what’s left of democracy will be dead.

The mass movement for voting rights has been demanding that Republicans change positions and support voting rights. But the movement’s efforts may be pointed in the wrong direction. The movement’s focus may need to be on pressuring Democrats, including President Biden to go full LBJ and wavering Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin, Kristen Sinema (and possibly several others) to reform the filibuster and pass Voting Rights.

Otherwise, the Biden Presidency will be a failure, and America will become even more of an autocracy ruled of, by, and for the minority.