Article of the Day: April 16, 2021

The filibuster can be conquered: I know — I helped do it

It’s now conventional wisdom that the filibuster — or just the threat of a filibuster — will likely raise havoc with the core of President Biden’s legislative agenda: voting rights, immigration reform, gun control and climate change. Pundits of all stripes are wringing their hands at the prospect of senatorial deadlock. But only a handful have proposed any concrete actions to avoid this legislative cataclysm.

There is one shining example, however, when the filibuster — against all odds — was conquered.

The historic Civil Right Act of 1964 never would have survived in its final form unless the bipartisan pro-civil rights coalition found a way to defeat Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.) and his band of 18 Southern Democrats. More to the point, what happened then — 57 years ago — provides a useful roadmap for today.

A few basic facts:

All the smart money in 1964 said the filibuster, led by Sen. Russell, could not be defeated. The reasons were obvious. In 1964, Senate Rule XXII provided that 67 senators were needed to limit debate. Optimistic nose-counts indicated the bipartisan pro-civil rights forces lacked 12 “critical” votes to reach 67.

These votes could only be found from among traditional mid-western Republicans and conservative western Democrats. In their wildest imaginings, these conservative senators never considered supporting legislation to expand federal authority over personal property rights in granting equal access in restaurants, hotels, and jobs.

Worse yet, if the pro-civil rights forces seriously weakened these provisions as the price for ending the filibuster — the traditional strategy that Sen. Lyndon Johnson had used in 1957 to pass that civil rights legislation — the pro-civil rights allies in the House, especially Rep. William McCullough (R-Ohio), would revolt. The legislation would then likely perish in conference.

One could not escape the reality that breaking the filibuster was simply impossible.

The strong bill passed by the House (H.R. 7152) and supported by President Lyndon Johnson would fall victim to various weakening amendments and either die outright or be rendered toothless.

That was the well-established pattern. And that was what most observers forecast when the legislation finally cleared the House in February 1964.

Sen. Russell was expected to divide his 18 senators into three teams that would alternate holding the floor, thus permitting the other two to rest. The pro-civil rights senators, on the other hand, had to produce 51 senators at any time, day or night, to defeat southern quorum calls or motions to adjourn. This was expected — to erode pro-civil rights resolve over time and make likely weakening amendments or outright defeat.

Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) asked his assistant leader, Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) to serve as the floor leader of the House-passed bill. As Sen. Humphrey’s principal assistant for domestic issues, I ended up coordinating with the staff of other senators, communicating with the Department of Justice, and working with outside allies.

Working together, we hammered out a detailed strategy that we believed could eventually force Senator Russell to surrender:

  • Make the Southern Democrats hold the floor and debate the bill itself. Don’t let them read from the Chicago phone book or discourse on Auntie Sue’s fried chicken. Pro-civil rights senators, both Democratic and Republican, were assigned responsibility for major titles of the legislation. These “captains” would force Southern Democrats to debate, not just ramble on.
  • Deal fairly and openly with the Southern Democrats so no one — especially undecided conservative Republicans — could claim that the filibusterers  had been denied a fair shot.
  • Establish and enforce a whip system that would ensure 51 pro-civil rights senators were present whenever Southern Democrats “suggested the absence of a quorum.” In 60 days of debate, the whip system failed but once.
  • Never schedule a cloture vote until victory was assured. No “test votes.” No amendments prior to cloture. A premature loss could only weaken the pro-civil rights forces. 
  • Organize and focus outside groups supporting the bill. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights served as the coordinating body. Actively seek support among the three mainline religious denominations to make racial justice a compelling moral issue.
  • Operate an intelligence system that focused in detail on developing leverage with undecided senators. One example: We telephoned “talking points” each morning to the wife of a conservative mid-western senator so she would be well-armed for their nightly dinner conversation.
  • Publish a daily mimeographed “Pro-Civil Rights Newsletter” that would be delivered each morning to every senator and the media, outlining what to expect each day and to refute Southern Democratic arguments.

The recounting of what happened in 1964 points the way in 2021.

Force the opposition to hold the floor and talk. No more premature “test votes.” No weakening amendments prior to cloture. Get organized by assigning senators to monitor the floor and be ready to defeat likely quorum calls. Coordinate closely with outside support groups and the media. Stay on the offensive.

Make a special effort to get religious denominations fully involved. Protecting the right to vote in 2021 has the same potential to become a moral issue as compelling as the defeat of Jim Crow was in 1964.

Force a rules change — using the nuclear option, if necessary — that shifts the load to those filibustering. Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has suggested amending Rule XXII to provide that filibusterers would have to produce 41 votes to maintain the floor. Having to produce 41 votes at all hours, day or night, possibly for weeks, shifts the burden to those wanting to block action.

This approach has the compelling advantage of preserving the filibuster itself, thus recognizing the concerns of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and, I’m willing to bet, a handful of moderate Republicans.

The moral imperative of the struggle to preserve the right to vote as the foundation of American democracy must be hammered home relentlessly. As the filibuster drags on, and if the forces for passage hang tough, pressure for positive action will grow.

This battle can be won. And it surely is worth waging.

John G. Stewart, of Knoxville, Tenn., was legislative director for Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) when Humphrey was a senator and vice president. He is the author of “When Democracy Worked: Reflections on the Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964” and “Witness to the Promised Land.”

AotD: HCR Again on the Republican Party’s History

Heather Cox RichardsonApr 7

I spent much of today thinking about the Republican Party. Its roots lie in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in spring 1854, when it became clear that elite southern slaveholders had taken control of the federal government and were using their power to spread their system of human enslavement across the continent. 

At first, members of the new party knew only what they stood against: an economic system that concentrated wealth upward and made it impossible for ordinary men to prosper. But in 1859, their new spokesman, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, articulated a new vision of government. Rather than using government power solely to protect the property of wealthy slaveholders, Lincoln argued, the government should work to make it possible for all men to get equal access to resources, including education, so they could rise to economic security. 

As a younger man, Lincoln had watched his town of New Salem die because the settlers in the town did not have the resources to dredge the Sangamon River to increase their river trade. Had the government simply been willing to invest in the economic development that was too much for the willing workers of New Salem, it could have brought prosperity to the men who, for lack of investment, failed and abandoned their town. The government, Lincoln thought, must develop the country’s infrastructure. 

Once in power, the Republicans did precisely that. After imposing the first national taxes, including an income tax, lawmakers set out to enable men to be able to pay those taxes by using the government to give ordinary men access to resources. In 1862, they passed the Homestead Act, giving western land to anyone willing to settle it; the Land-Grant College Act, providing funds to establish state universities; the act establishing the Department of Agriculture, to provide scientific information and good seeds to farmers; and the Pacific Railway Act, providing for the construction of a railroad across the continent to get men to the fields and the mines of the West. 

In 1902, Republicans fascinated with infrastructure projects joined forces with southern Democrats desperate for flood control to pass the Newlands Reclamation Act. Under the act, the federal government built more than 600 dams in 20 western states to bring water to farmland. “The sound and steady development of the West depends upon the building up of homes therein,” President Theodore Roosevelt wrote. Water from the western dams now irrigates more than 10 million acres, which produce about 60% of the nation’s vegetables and 25% of its fruits (and nuts). 

Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt combined this focus on infrastructure development with the need for work relief programs during the Depression to create the 1933 Civilian Conservation Corps, which planted trees, built fire towers, built trails, stocked fish, and so on. In 1935, Congress created the Works Progress Administration. During its existence, it employed about 3 million workers at a time; built or repaired more than 100,000 public buildings, including schools and post offices; and constructed more than 500 airports, more than 500,000 miles of roads, and more than 100,000 bridges. It also employed actors, photographers, painters, and writers to conduct interviews, paint murals of our history, and tell our national story. 

As the country grew and became more interconnected, pressure built for a developed road system, but while FDR liked the idea of the jobs it would produce, building the road fell to Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. Three years after he became president, Eisenhower backed the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, saying, “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods.” The law initially provided $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of road; at the time, it was the largest public works project in U.S. history.

In America today, there is good news. The Biden administration has rolled out vaccines at a faster pace than anyone foresaw. Today, President Biden announced that health care workers have administered 150 million doses of the vaccine and, at an average of 3 million shots a day, they are on track to administer 200 million by his 100th day in office. He is moving the date for states to make all adults eligible for a vaccine from May 1 to April 19.

The vaccines have dovetailed with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan from last month and the spring weather to speed up the economic recovery. Economists had expected a job gain of about 660,000 in March, but nonfarm payrolls actually rose by about 916,000. And now Biden has rolled out a dramatic new infrastructure proposal, the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.

So why was I thinking about the Republicans today?

In this moment, Republican lawmakers seem weirdly out of step with their party’s history as well as with the country. They are responding to the American Jobs Plan by defining infrastructure as roads and bridges alone, cutting from the definition even the broadband that they included when Trump was president. (Trump, remember, followed his huge 2017 tax cuts with the promise of a big infrastructure bill. As he said, “Infrastructure is the easiest of all…. People want it, Republicans and Democrats.”) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warns that Biden’s plan is a “Trojan horse” that will require “massive tax increases.” 

Biden has indeed proposed funding the Democrats’ infrastructure plan by raising taxes on corporations from their current rate of 21% to 28% (but before Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, that rate was 35%). It ends federal tax breaks for oil and gas companies, and it increases the global minimum tax—a tax designed to keep corporations from shifting their profits to low tax countries– from 13% to 21%. 

This is in keeping with our history. Americans since Lincoln have proudly used tax dollars to develop the country. During Eisenhower’s era, the corporate tax rate was 52% (and the top income tax bracket was 91%). The Newlands Act was designed to raise money through public land sales, but in 1928, when Congress authorized what would become Hoover Dam, the Bureau of Reclamation began to operate out of the government’s general funds. 

But it was Lincoln’s Republicans who first provided the justification for investing in the nation. In the midst of the deadly Civil War, as the United States was hemorrhaging both blood and money, Republican lawmakers defended first their invention of national taxes. The government had a right to “demand” 99% of a man’s property for an urgent need, said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Justin Smith Morrill (R-VT). When the nation required it, he said, “the property of the people… belongs to the [g]overnment.”

The Republicans also defended developing the country. In a debate over the new Department of Agriculture, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee William Pitt Fessenden (R-ME), famous both for his crabbiness and for his single-minded focus on the war, defended the use of “seed money.” With such an investment, he said, the country would be “richly paid over and over again in absolute increase of wealth. There is no doubt of that.”

Article of the Day: Heather Cox Richardson analyzes the political scene 4/5/21

Heather Cox RichardsonApr 5

The Republican outrage over Major League Baseball moving the All-Star game out of Georgia after the passage of the state’s new voter suppression law reveals a bigger crisis in American democracy: the mechanics of our current system do not reflect the will of the majority.

Consumer-driven corporate America is increasingly throwing its weight against the new voter suppression measures across the country. While MLB and Coca-Cola are out front on the new Georgia voting law, American Airlines, Microsoft, and Dell are all opposing the new Texas voter restriction measures. These corporations are focused on those Americans with buying power, and on those they predict will have that buying power going forward. When they take a stand against voter suppression laws, they are making a bet that the future of America is moving away from the Republicans toward a more inclusive society. 

They have drawn the fury of current Republican lawmakers, especially those in Georgia, who are insisting that these corporate decisions are part of a culture war in which Democrats are pressuring corporate leaders to “cancel” things with which they disagree. But MLB is not known as a progressive league. Its fanbase is primarily White and does not tend to lean left. The players were not involved in MLB’s decision to move the All-Star game out of Atlanta, a decision that will cost Georgia about $100 million. Nonetheless, former president Trump yesterday called for his supporters to boycott “Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, JPMorgan Chase, ViacomCBS, Citigroup, Cisco, UPS and Merck,” all companies on the record against the new voter suppression bills.

The emphasis of corporate America on what its directors think the majority of its consumers want shows the same sort of disconnect national polls reveal. Americans as a whole do not like the policies of current-day Republican lawmakers. Seventy-seven percent of us like the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, and yet not a single Republican voted for it. Eighty-four percent of us like background checks for gun purchases, and yet that policy is anathema to Republicans. 

Seventy-nine percent of us want the government to fix our roads, bridges, railroads, and ports. Seventy-one percent of us want the government to make sure we all have high-speed internet. Sixty-eight percent of us want the government to replace our lead pipes, the same percentage as people who want the government to support renewable energy with tax credits. Sixty-four percent of us want to pay for these things by increasing taxes on corporations and big businesses. 

Republican lawmakers oppose all of these popular measures. 

Because our political system is currently skewed toward the Republican Party, its members’ opposition in Congress is far more powerful than it is on the ground. Because of gerrymandering, Democratic candidates in 2020 defeated their Republican opponents by 3.1 percentage points nationally and yet lost a dozen seats in the House of Representatives. 

The Senate is even less fairly representative. It is currently divided evenly, with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats (technically, 48 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats). But the 50 Democrats represent 41.5 million more people than the Republicans do (the U.S. has a population of about 328 million).

That Republican minority can currently stop all legislation other than budget bills and judicial appointments through the process known as the filibuster, which forces 60 members of the Senate to agree to a bill before it can move forward. 

As current-day Republican lawmakers fall farther out of sync with what the majority of Americans want, they have turned to the courts to shore up their vision of a world in which government cannot regulate business, protect civil rights, or provide a basic social safety net, but can enforce rules popular with evangelical religious practitioners (although evangelical religion is also on the wane, apparently in part because of its political partisanship). “By legislating from the bench, Republicans dodge accountability for unpopular policies,” writes Ian Millhiser in a terrific piece in the New York Times on March 30. “Meanwhile, the real power is held by Republican judges who serve for life — and therefore do not need to worry about whether their decisions enjoy public support.”

And yet, the party is nervous enough about its eroding power base that a Republican-aligned group has launched an initiative called the “American Culture Project,” intending to redirect the “cultural narrative” that its organizers believe “the left” now controls with “cancel culture” and “woke supremacy.” Set up as a social welfare organization, the American Culture Project does not have to disclose its donors or pay federal income taxes. Through ads on Facebook and other platforms, it hopes to swing voters to the Republicans; it is organized in at least five states– Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia—under names like “Arise Ohio,” “Stand Up Florida,” and “Mighty Michigan.” 

A fundraising email shared with Isaac Stanley-Becker of the Washington Post, who broke the story, says, “We are building assets to shape and frame the political field in advance of the 2022 election and beyond….  [Y]our support of our outreach can be the difference between the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate staying under control of the Democrats or shifting back to pro-freedom Republican majorities.”

Baseball AotD: 4/3/21

How the Yankees’ Luckiest Batboy Ended Up in an Unmarked Grave

Eddie Bennett earned fame in the dugouts of the Major Leagues. He had almost slipped from memory when New Yorkers teamed up to honor his short, dramatic life.

April 2, 2021

Eddie Bennett in 1921, the year he became the Yankees’ batboy.
Eddie Bennett in 1921, the year he became the Yankees’ batboy.via Library of Congress

For 85 years, visitors to St. John’s Cemetery in Queens skipped past an unmarked grave in Section 34, Row DD. This is where Edward Bennett, a batboy for the New York Yankees — maybe the most famous batboy in the Major Leagues — was buried and forgotten.

For most of the 1920s, Eddie Bennett was the Yankees’ handyman, mascot and good luck charm. He was the first to shake hands with a player after he crossed the plate, and he ferried Babe Ruth’s bats from the locker room to the dugout for the slugger to find the perfect fit — sometimes as many as 33 of them. “There ought to be a law,” Eddie jokingly complained to an adoring press corps that had made him a fixture of the sports columns.

He was such an integral part of the team, in fact, that he was voted a share of the team’s earnings. When the players got diamond rings to celebrate the Yankees’ crushing World Series victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1927, the batboy got one, too. “Feel the weight of it,” he bragged to a reporter.

How Mr. Bennett ended up in an unmarked grave in Middle Village, Queens — and how it was discovered and marked by a lifelong Yankees fan and a diocesan priest — is a tale of luck and charity and a fitting denouement to his drama-filled life.

Babe Ruth in 1927 with his favorite batboy, who served as the team’s handyman, mascot and good luck charm.
Babe Ruth in 1927 with his favorite batboy, who served as the team’s handyman, mascot and good luck charm.The Stanley Weston Archive, via Getty Images

His back story was a big part of his appeal. By the time he got to the Yankees, Eddie Bennett had come a long way. He was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1903, and as an infant, he fell out of his carriage and twisted his spine, which stunted his growth and left him with a misshapen back.

When he was around 16, he was sacked from his job as a courier on Wall Street, the year after the Spanish flu swept through Brooklyn and killed both his parents. Looking for work, he found himself walking to the Polo Grounds, where the Chicago White Sox were visiting the Yankees for a doubleheader.

As he slipped under the bleachers to get a drink of water, Happy Felsch, a White Sox center fielder, spotted him. He laid his hand on the lump on the teenager’s back.

“Kid, are you lucky?” Mr. Felsch asked.

“Well, of course,” Eddie replied. What else could he say?

A newspaper profile the year after the Yankees’ 1927 World Series victory gave Eddie Bennett’s career a boost.
A newspaper profile the year after the Yankees’ 1927 World Series victory gave Eddie Bennett’s career a boost.The Brooklyn Citizen

Where many of the time would have dismissed the youth for his physical ailment, Mr. Felsch saw a talisman.

“In baseball, it was a superstitious age, far more than we can appreciate today,” said Gabriel Schechter, a baseball historian and author of a biography of Charlie Faust, a mentally challenged mascot for the New York Giants.

The White Sox went on to win the second game. They had gotten themselves a new mascot, and Mr. Bennett, a new job. In time, his reputation as a jinx chaser made it to Miller Huggins, the Yankees’ manager. In 1921, he offered Mr. Bennett $25 a week to serve as a batboy, the equivalent of $335 today.

Mr. Bennett’s arrival came a year after Babe Ruth’s. Ruth’s thunderous homers would catapult the Yankees to seven pennants and four World Series, but the sportswriters always ensured that the batboy got some of the credit. “Both are doing much to bring the Yankees home first in the pennant race,” said the caption to a syndicated picture of Mr. Bennett and Ruth.

Eddie Bennett, front row, second from left, with the 1921 Yankees team at the Polo Grounds.
Eddie Bennett, front row, second from left, with the 1921 Yankees team at the Polo Grounds.Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images

By the time Murderers’ Row trampled the Pirates in the 1927 World Series, the orphan’s domain had expanded to organizing transportation and handling baggage, duties normally assigned to the traveling secretary. He took to wearing well-tailored suits and brightly colored ties.

Sign up for the New York Today Newsletter: Each morning, get the latest on New York businesses, arts, sports, dining, style and more.

On the road, Mr. Bennett roomed with Urban Shocker, a pitcher. Shocker’s heart disease forced him to sleep sitting up, and he was worried he would lose his job if the team found out. But he knew he could trust Mr. Bennett with his secret, said Steve Steinberg, a baseball historian who wrote a biography of Shocker.

Yankees (including Babe Ruth, far left, Eddie Bennett, center, and Lou Gehrig, far right) heading for spring training in the 1920s. 
Yankees (including Babe Ruth, far left, Eddie Bennett, center, and Lou Gehrig, far right) heading for spring training in the 1920s. Bettmann Archive, via Getty Images

Alas, the jinx the batboy chased off the field caught up to him. And then, it all ended, no less improbably. In May 1932, a taxicab pinned him against a pillar, breaking one of his legs and sending him to the hospital. Hobbling about on crutches, he tried to return to the dugout but was soon replaced by Jimmy Mars, an ambitious youngster who ran away from his Chicago home as soon as he heard about the mascot vacancy.

The Daily News

Three years later, Mr. Bennett was found dead in a furnished room on West 84th Street. Autographed photos from Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt, both pitchers for the Yankees, hung on the walls, The New York Times reported. Balls and bats signed by Ruth and Lou Gehrig decorated the room. An autopsy found that Mr. Bennett had died of alcoholism. He was 31.

A few staff members from the Yankees front office braved the January cold to attend his funeral. None of the players went, possibly because they were scattered about owing to the off-season. The team paid for the burial at St. John’s.

The team would go on to win 23 more World Series, but the batboys who came after Eddie Bennett would never be as famous.

As big a Yankees fan as Charles Papio was, he had never heard of Mr. Bennett. One day in the fall of 2019, he came across the mascot’s name on the St. John’s Cemetery website, listed among the famous buried there, like Carlo Gambino, the crime boss, and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mr. Papio, a 73-year-old retired police officer, has a family grave at St. John’s and is a regular visitor. He had little trouble locating Mr. Bennett’s plot the next day, right next to Cooper Avenue.

When he got there, all he found was a patch of grass littered with dead leaves and a small American flag staked in it. There was no stone. Mr. Papio said a silent prayer. “My feelings were that he was a child of God and a mother’s child who had fallen through the cracks,” he said.

He started reading up on Mr. Bennett’s life. A practicing Catholic and an equally devoted Yankees fan — he owns mementos signed by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle — he felt like something had to be done to honor the batboy’s memory.

Soon, he’d persuaded Ed Wilkinson, an editor at The Tablet, the Brooklyn diocese’s newspaper, to write a story about Mr. Bennett’s short, sad life.

The article soon made the rounds, and word that Mr. Bennett’s grave remained unmarked made it to the owner of a monument company on Long Island, who offered to donate a marker. The coronavirus pandemic delayed plans to hold a memorial service.

Finally, one sunny day last November, Mr. Papio put on a dark suit and drove to St. John’s. He stood by Mr. Bennett’s grave as the Rev. Michael Udoh, the cemetery’s chaplain, sprinkled holy water on a newly installed granite stone. It read: “Edward Bennett, 1903-1935. New York Yankees Mascot/Batboy, 1921-1932.”

Honoring Mr. Bennett at his gravesite were, from left, Anthony Spadolini, whose company donated a marker; the Rev. Michael Udoh; Anthony Nicodemo of the Catholic Cemeteries Office; and Charles Papio, a Yankees fan who initiated the effort to commemorate Mr. Bennett’s life.
Honoring Mr. Bennett at his gravesite were, from left, Anthony Spadolini, whose company donated a marker; the Rev. Michael Udoh; Anthony Nicodemo of the Catholic Cemeteries Office; and Charles Papio, a Yankees fan who initiated the effort to commemorate Mr. Bennett’s life.Ed Wilkinson/The Tablet

Father Udoh, who was born in Nigeria, had learned of Mr. Bennett only the day of the service, but he said he was moved by his story. “Even in his condition,” he said, “he was dedicated to bringing joy to people.”