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Civil Rights, 1964 and What We've Lost

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According to Gallup, 15 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing - just slightly better than the approval rating Gallup reported a few years ago for polygamy. Once upon a time, Americans actually respected our representatives in Washington, and an anniversary this month helps explain why.

While much attention will mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, we shouldn't forget a key turning point that paved the way for the law's enactment that happened the month before, on June 10, 1964.

That's the day supporters of the Civil Rights Act broke a Senate filibuster led by southern Democrats, who were fighting to the end to save segregation. How that happened - and what's happened in the Senate since - tells a lot about where we've been and where we're going. And much of what it tells us is discouraging.

Filibusters were a much different animal in 1964 than they are today. Instead of a nearly-routine effort by one party to block the actions of a president from another party, filibusters were only used for big, important issues. In part, that's because to maintain a filibuster, its supporters had to actually stand up and hold the floor. Filibusterers had to literally keep talking as long as they wanted to block a vote.

As of June 10, 1964, the filibuster of the Civil Rights Act had tied up the Senate for 60 days. That's how long it took for Senate Democratic Whip Hubert Humphrey, who was managing the bill, to put together the 67 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

It took two thirds of the Senate back then to overcome a filibuster. The threshold was later reduced to 60 votes, but that hasn't stopped filibusters from becoming as common as dirt in the last decade or so.

The vote to end the filibuster was bipartisan, with Republicans supplying the crucial votes. With southern Democrats fighting civil rights to the end, the bill couldn't have passed without substantial GOP support. Republican leader Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois - a stately old gentleman who could be fiery when the occasion called for it -- spoke passionately for the bill. "Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come," Dirksen said. "The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied. It is here!"

In a dramatic moment, the deciding vote was cast by California Sen. Clair Engle, desperately ill with a brain tumor and no longer able to speak. The only way he could signal his vote was to point to his eye to signify "aye." At the end, 71 senators had voted for cloture, as it's known, making eventual passage of the bill a certainty.

It was the first time in 37 years that the Senate had voted to end a filibuster.

In the 1960s, there were rarely more than 10 filibusters in a single two-year session of Congress. Over the years the number gradually escalated until in recent years the number has soared well past 100 in session after session - more than one a week. No longer reserved for big, important issues like the Civil Rights Act, in recent years it degenerated into a routine effort by one party (recently the Republicans, but also Democrats during the final years of the George W. Bush administration) to block nearly anything the other party wanted to do.

Late last year, the unprecedented level of gridlock led Democrats to push through a controversial reform that allows a simple majority to overcome filibusters of presidential appointments. While that's had some positive results, it hasn't changed some aspects of the Senate - and Washington in general - that are profoundly troubling.

Some issues used to transcend party. Both the campaign to pass civil rights and the desperation effort to block it were bipartisan. It was a big, emotional issue that both major parties wrestled with and felt profound divisions over. There was certainly plenty of arm-twisting to get to the final vote (after all, the president was Lyndon B. Johnson, the patron saint of arm-twisting), but ultimately the battle was about conscience, not partisan advantage.

After the bill's passage, President Johnson famously said, "We have lost the South for a generation." When was the last time you saw a leader of either party move heaven and earth to pass a law that he or she knew - not just suspected, but knew - would cause their party massive political damage in a region of the country where they'd been dominant?

The 71 votes that overcame the civil rights filibuster consisted of 27 Republicans and 44 Democrats. When was the last time you heard of something that controversial being decided in a manner so bipartisan? And when was the last time you saw top leaders of the Republican Party - the party that gave us the Emancipation Proclamation and amended the Constitution to establish legal equality for African Americans - standing up so firmly for civil rights?

No wonder Americans had more respect for Congress back then.

American society has progressed in many ways since 1964, and much of that progress stems directly from the Civil Rights Act. But we've lost something profound as well, particularly in the way our government functions.

As we commemorate this year's historic anniversaries, let's not just pat ourselves on the back for what we've gained. Let's think about how to get back what we've lost. Let's think about the things we could achieve and the country our children could inherit if big decisions were again based on big principles rather than partisan gamesmanship.