TRY THINGS THE LBJ WAY?…. Matt Yglesias shares a story today about Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, a far-right Democrat back in the Dixiecrat era, that I hadn’t heard in a while. It’s has quite a bit of relevance to current events.
Eastland’s chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee obviously made passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 impossible. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and President Lyndon Johnson dealt with this by just . . . not letting the bill get bottled up in committee and bringing it to the floor instead. The sky didn’t fall! Leading politicians decided that justice was more important that the dead hand of Senate procedure and they brought the bill to the floor where it was voted on.
Imagine that. Four-and-a-half decades later, this procedural detail is a tidbit of trivia. I suspect, at the time, Eastland and his allies characterized this as an outrageous power-grab. Had the phrase existed, “nuclear option” probably would have been thrown around casually. If Fox News were around, Mansfield and LBJ would have been labeled authoritarian dictators, ramming controversial legislation down the throat of lawmakers.
Indeed, in a contemporary context, Mansfield and LBJ would be expected to wait patiently, while Eastland tried to negotiate a “compromise” with opponents of the Civil Rights Act that could win support from the left and right. There’d be demands that lawmakers “take their time” to “get it right,” eschewing “arbitrary deadlines.” The David Broders would say landmark bills like these demand broad consensus. Lawmakers confronted with angry cries from conservative activists would be seen as proof that Mansfield and LBJ should “slow down” and temper their ambitions, while Eastland waters down the bill.
Instead, Mansfield and LBJ decided to skip the committee and pass the bill anyway. There was talk from the far-right about “nullification,” but in time, the hysterical found something new to focus their attention on. Now, no one even remembers the process, but everyone remembers the policy.
As this relates to health care reform in 2009, it’s not even clear what more the Gang of Six have to talk about. They’ve been looking at the same proposals, the same numbers, and the same budget for months. They wanted to work over August, but instead, they had one telephone chat last night, and agreed to talk again in two weeks. At that point, they’ll look at the same proposals, the same numbers, and the same budget some more.
There’s been a Sept. 15 deadline hanging over their heads for a while, but the Gang of Six no longer cares. In fact, the gang’s members have decided to ignore the deadline, so they can stare at the same proposals, the same numbers, and the same budget indefinitely.
Mansfield and LBJ wouldn’t put the policy goal at risk for the sake of process. Reid and Obama have every reason to follow their precedent.