April 20, 2022 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
That time LBJ stopped Nixon from changing the filibuster rule
The ironies of history.
But the rule itself is an alteration.
The filibuster has been used by all represented parties since 1806 but it’s most closely associated with the fight to deny greater civil liberties and rights to non-white citizens of the United States – first by the Southern caucus of the Democratic Party after the Civil War and since roughly 1965, by the Republican Party.
Before 1917, there was literally no way to end debate in the Senate, making it the impregnable bulwark against pretty much everything.
The story regarding Nixon, LBJ, civil rights, cloture and the filibuster in 1957 reminds us of our civil and moral obligation to current and future generations of this nation, and what the consequences of failing to live up to these obligations can be.
After the creation of cloture through Senate Rule 22, however, there now at least existed a way to defeat the filibuster.
But this device has always been a political weapon of expedience that all have used, which has hindered its alteration or elimination.
Nixon and LBJ
Had Vice President Richard Nixon and senator from California, William Knowland, gotten their way regarding the filibuster and cloture during the fight for civil rights legislation in 1957 – instead of the Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson – the Republican Party might today be known as more than just “the party of Lincoln.”
It would likely be known as the party that put an end to the tyranny of the minority, perpetuated eternally by the filibuster, to create and enshrine tough civil rights legislation, not the party that, in the 21st century, looks to deny or limit civil rights for political advantage.
The late 1950s had loads of opportunities for each party to alter, once and for all, Senate Rule 22. After Nixon failed from his position as president of the Senate at the beginning of the 85th Congress in 1957 to effect that change, the Senate’s mostly Democratic liberal majority, acquired for the 86th US Congress of 1959, was also inhibited from changing that despicable rule by Majority Leader Johnson.
But back in 1956 – during the 84th Congress – Nixon hoped Republicans would get credit for passing civil rights legislation, as to erode support Black voters had given, since 1936, to the Democrats.
Yet late in 1956, LBJ was able to keep the desired bill in committee until the election of the next Congress. By the time the new 85th Congress was seated early in 1957, Richard Nixon would famously attempt to change the rules of cloture and filibuster forever.
By suggesting that each new Senate has the right to alter that body’s rules at the start of each new congressional session, Nixon opened the door for not only modification of Rule 22, but all the rules. While the ploy failed, the whole situation is significant and ironic all the same.
The Ironies of history
That Nixon – that Nixon! – declared the Senate had the right to reconfigure its rules in the hopes of passing civil rights legislation in opposition to the reactionary forces being managed by Majority Leader LBJ is striking from the perspective of posterity.
Had Nixon succeeded, life today would likely be very different.
Both Nixon and Johnson knew the future hinged on civil rights being passed before 1960. They fought like they knew as much.
Johnson would win the battle. Along with watered-down civil rights legislation in 1957, as well as 1960, the Democrats would go on to pass truly meaningful, historic civil rights legislation in 1964, 1965 and 1968.
Had the GOP been able to alter Senate Rule 22 and pass a GOP-credited civil rights bill in ’57, well, it’s difficult to know how future civil rights bills would’ve worked out or imagine that many of the conservative Democratic Senators of the South eventually realigning themselves with the Republican Party, as they would.
Nixon would never again go all-in regarding the filibuster or civil rights. His subsequent adoption of the Southern Strategy in the next decade highlights the nature of Nixon’s rules declaration in 1957.
For Nixon, like LBJ, the calculations of 1957 were calculations of political expediency. When he and his party determined that Democrats had mostly consolidated the vote of Black Americans across the US, they made further political calculations, and their new strategy morphed from one of inclusion to one of exclusion.
The requirements to end filibuster through cloture may be altered one day. Yet the story regarding Nixon, LBJ, civil rights, cloture and the filibuster in 1957 reminds us of our civil and moral obligation to current and future generations of this nation, and what the consequences of failing to live up to these obligations can be.
Trent R. Nelson is a historian and political and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributor to Liberal Currents. Follow him @TRichard_Nelson.