Could The Civil Rights Act Of 1964 Make It Through Congress Today?
It was fifty years ago today that Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in a ceremony attended by Congressional leaders and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By most accounts, this piece of legislation is considered one of the most important laws of the 20th Century and, indeed, among the most important pieces of legislation to pass in the last twenty years. As I noted last week, those people currently serving in Congress marked the occasion with a ceremony postumously awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. That ceremony, of course, was marked by the sheer awkwardness of Congressional leaders holding hands while trying to sing “We Shall Overcome.” For the most part, the 1964 act is something that both parties take credit for, as well they should, but Politico’s Todd Purdum notes that there is no way that the law could pass that law today:
The climate in today’s Washington is so different from the one that produced what many scholars view as the most important law of the 20th century that celebrating the law’s legacy is awkward for Republicans and Democrats alike. Neither party bears much resemblance to its past counterpart, and the bipartisanship that carried the day then is now all but dead.
Congress is deadlocked on every big question, from immigration reform to a grand bargain on taxes and spending, so it’s hard to believe the two parties once cooperated to address the single most controversial domestic issue of the day — legal equality for the races — or that Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill 50 years ago Wednesday, in the middle of a presidential election year. Now Boehner is suing President Barack Obama for failing to faithfully execute the laws, and Reid inveighs daily about the Koch brothers’ contributions to GOP causes.
Yes, Reid paid tribute to the bill’s Republican floor leader, Thomas Kuchel of California (though he mispronounced his name as KEE-chul, not KEE-kul). And Boehner invoked the crucial role played by his fellow Ohio Republican, Rep. William McCulloch, in helping Kennedy and Johnson pass the bill, but the very next day, Boehner betrayed McCulloch’s bipartisan legacy by announcing his intention to sue Obama for usurping congressional powers.
“The Republican Party today doesn’t really honor its past,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.” “The Republican Party that had been ceased to be sometime in the 1980s, and the modern party — the radical conservative party — not only has little or no interest in honoring its history, it is actively hostile to it.”
Part of the problem is this: Although the Civil Rights Act passed the Senate by 73-27, with 27 out of 33 Republican votes, one of the six Republicans who voted against it was Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who weeks later became the GOP’s presidential standard-bearer and started the long process by which the Party of Lincoln became the party of white backlash, especially in the South. Today, Republicans hold complete legislative control in all 11 states of the Old Confederacy for only the second time since Reconstruction.
Current GOP Chairman Reince Priebus has hired dozens of black and Latino field organizers, and he himself has made the rounds to historically black colleges and universities in an effort to launch College Republican chapters there. “Having bipartisanship on campus and giving our students options is really important,” he told a gathering at Central State University near Dayton, Ohio, in May.
But the position of the GOP’s congressional wing on issues from immigration, to voting rights, to the minimum wage (while helping to rack up Republican victories in individual districts) is broadly alienating to most African-American voters. So are efforts at the state level to impose new voter identification laws or other limits on access to the ballot box that disproportionately affect black voters. All that makes it hard for today’s GOP to lay plausible claim to its undisputed legacy on civil rights.
At the same time, the Democratic Party’s stance on civil rights has steadily shifted from the color-blind approach of 50 years ago — a belief that if blacks and whites were granted equal standing at the ballot box and in public spaces and the workplace, justice would prevail — to an emphasis on color-conscious remedies like affirmative action and social programs that redistribute wealth.
“Republicans have never gotten on board with that last piece,” Kabaservice said, “and so Democrats now almost have to define Republicans as anti-civil rights.”
Indeed, Democrats have seized that viewpoint, sharpening their civil rights rhetoric against Republicans to the point where bipartisanship on the issue has all but disappeared. Obama himself has found it difficult, and even politically dangerous, to discuss questions of race too frankly in public, and he issued an anodyne proclamation in honor of the bill’s anniversary, pledging to “renew our commitment to building a freer, fairer, greater society” but making no mention of the Republicans’ crucial role in its passage.
There are really two issues at play in Purdum’s analysis, but they both tend to support his argument that it would be difficult if not impossible for any President to push through legislation like this Civil Rights Act today.
At the top of the list, of course, is the fact that the kind of bipartisanship that existed in 1964 when the Act was passed simply doesn’t exist in Congress today. Back then 80% of the Republicans in the House and 82% of Republicans in the Senate joined with their Democratic counterparts to pass the bill. Additionally, the bill likely would not have made it through Congress at all without the help of Republicans in the House like Kuchel and McCulloch and Senate Republicans such as Everett Dirksen, who worked across the aisle to reach a compromise that broke the 54 day filibuster against the bill that had been launched by Southern Democrats. Does anyone realistically see something like that happening in today’s day and age? Perhaps if it were the case that the issue involved were something of immediate importance brought on by crisis this would happen, and indeed it did happen in the wake of the September 11th attacks in the case of both the Authorization For Use Of Military Force Against Terrorists and the PATRIOT Act. For almost any other type of legislation, it seems unlikely that the kind of cross-party and cross-chamber cooperation that Congres demonstrated half a century ago would be possible today.
In addition to the decline in bipartisanship, but certainly one of the reasons for it, is the way in which the Republican Party has changed over the past 50 years. The “moderate” Republicans like Dirksen who were behind the Civil Rights Act from the start barely exist anymore. While those moderates predominantly came from the Northeast and Midwest, today’s Republicans are largely a product of the South and the West. That geographic shift has also been accompanied by an ideological shift in the party that has made it far more conservative that it used to be. Indeed, it is beyond question that the Southern Democrats who were the primary opponents would, in most cases, likely be Republicans today. That’s not to say that every Republican would oppose something like the Civil Rights Act, but some would and, as we have seen when it comes to issues ranging from immigration to voting rights to such mundane issues as the budget, that small minority in the GOP is able to wield a lot of power over party leaders who obviously know better when it comes to issues like this. Senator Dirksen and Congressmen Kuchel and McCulloch never had to face that kind of opposition within their own party. If they had, things might have unfolded very differently.
So, sadly, I must agree with Purdum that Congress would have a hard time passing the Civil Rights Act today. The fact that it seems to be able to get much of anything beyond naming Post Offices done easily is proof enough of that. Whether that changes in the future depends largely on who the American people choose to represent them.