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A century of Times editorials on the filibuster

March 5, 2010 |  9:32 am

Readers sometimes accuse The Times' editorial board of decrying the filibuster -- and other such procedural obstructions to legislative action -- only when it inhibits Democrats from passing their pet projects (such as healthcare reform). As far as the last five years are concerned, those charges are false. Since 2005, when Republicans in Congress threatened the "nuclear option" to end attempts by then-minority Democrats to prevent President Bush's conservative judicial nominees from coming to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote, the editorial board has consistently and pointedly called for an end to holds, filibusters and the like. The Times made its position clear in an April 26, 2005 editorial:

These are confusing days in Washington. Born-again conservative Christians who strongly want to see President Bush's judicial nominees voted on are leading the charge against the Senate filibuster, and liberal Democrats are born-again believers in that reactionary, obstructionist legislative tactic. Practically every big-name liberal senator you can think of derided the filibuster a decade ago but now sees the error of his or her ways and will go to amusing lengths to try to convince you that the change of heart is explained by something deeper than the mere difference between being in the majority and being in the minority.

At the risk of seeming dull or unfashionable for not getting our own intellectual makeover, we still think judicial candidates nominated by a president deserve an up-or-down vote in the Senate. We hardly see eye to eye with the far right on social issues, and we oppose some of these judicial nominees, but we urge Republican leaders to press ahead with their threat to nuke the filibuster. The so-called nuclear option entails a finding by a straight majority that filibusters are inappropriate in judicial confirmation battles.

But the Senate shouldn't stop with filibusters over judges. It should strive to nuke the filibuster for all legislative purposes.

The editorial board subsequently expressed dismay over a deal in the Senate to allow some judicial nominations to proceed at the expense of nuking the filibuster. 

So that accounts for the paper's current position, but The Times is much older than your average kindergartner. In fact, you don't have to look too far back for an editorial expressing some sympathy for, though not outright endorsing, a threatened filibuster. In 2003, the editorial board blamed Bush for Senate Democrats being "forced" to filibuster (get this) a handful of the president's far-right judicial nominees. From an Oct. 10, 2003 piece

By picking extreme judicial candidates, President Bush has forced Senate Democrats to swallow hard and back nominees they don't like or filibuster them. Senators have already done a lot of swallowing, confirming 164 of the administration's 200 nominees. These men and women occupy 19% of the seats on federal trial and appellate courts and all hold lifetime appointments.

Still, Democrats have drawn the line on three hard-right nominees, filibustering and blocking a vote on their confirmations. By narrowly approving U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering Sr. of Mississippi last week for a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals seat, the Senate Judiciary Committee has all but ensured that Democrats will add his name to the list....

Though filibusters against judicial candidates hold little appeal, the Bush administration's stubborn advocacy of unpalatables like Pickering makes it a senatorial option of last resort. Having won approval for many of its choices, the White House would be judicious to accept constitutional wisdom and take some Senate advice: Give up this bad nominee.

For much of the paper's recent history, The Times never had much to say about the filibuster itself as a procedural tactic. The editorial board blasted what it viewed as petty obstructionism (North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms was a frequent target) and, in 1986, praised senators who tried to block the enactment of a federal death penalty for murders committed in the course of drug crimes -- fairly pedestrian stuff for editorial pages.

It's a different story for The Times during its yellow-journalism days. In 1915, The Times headlined a piece, "God Bless the Filibusters"; less than a decade later, the paper declared, "Bust the Filibuster." For images of those editorials and more, click on the jump.

On Feb. 10, 1915, The Times cheered on Republicans who were trying block President Woodrow Wilson's actions to prepare a neutral United States for its eventual entry into World War I:


A week later, the paper published a roundup of GOP criticism of Wilson and Democrats. Sounding eerily similar to any anti-Obama screed by Glenn Beck or Michele Bachmann, one Republican senator said of Democrats, including President Wilson: "Members of the minority are engaged in preserving the fundamental principles of representative government.... A senator recently said to me that I could not afford to engage in a filibuster. Mr. President, I cannot flinch from duties placed upon me by my oath and my conscience in regard to the question which lies before me. That majority proposes to take a flying leap from the principles of Democracy to state socialism." The editorial, from Feb. 17, 1915:


Just seven years later, The Times was singing a different tune. In a Dec. 8, 1922 editorial, the paper wrote that should a Republican senator's efforts to kill the filibuster succeed, "his bust should go into the Hall of Fame." Normally, I'm reluctant to impute a motive, but those who are familiar with the Chandler family's famously Republican leanings should note that the GOP had one of its own in the White House (Warren G. Harding) and majorities in both houses of Congress after years of Democratic Party domination in the Senate and Wilson's two terms as president. Wrote The Times:

Decades later, when Southern Democrats sought to block civil rights legislation, The Times wrote favorably of the filibuster. From The Times' July 31, 1948 editorial page:


After Congress had enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Times discouraged aggrieved senators from blocking any funding for the law's enforcement via the filibuster, headlining its July 14, 1964 editorial, "Civil Rights: One Filibuster Is Enough." The full editorial:


-- Paul Thornton

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