John F. Kennedy came to office with an impressive legislative agenda, including civil rights and Medicare, which JFK proclaimed as "The New Frontier." And, on paper, he had a large Democratic majority in the House: 263 Democrats to 174 Republicans. But President Kennedy faced almost certain legislative defeat because, under the rules of the House of Representatives, no bill could be brought to the House floor unless it had first passed the House Rules Committee.
There were 12 Congressmen on the House Rules Committee, 8 Democrats and 4 Republicans. All four Republicans were conservatives, six of the eight Democrats were liberals. The two exceptions were William Colmer of Mississippi, who was first elected to Congress in 1932 and would be succeeded in 1972 by Trent Lott, and "Judge" Howard Smith of Alexandria, Virginia. Both Colmer and Smith were rabid bigoted segregationists, with Smith pontificating that "The Southern people have never accepted the colored race as a race of people who had equal intelligence and education and social attainments as the white people of the South." More often than not, Smith and Colmer would join with their Republican colleagues to deadlock the Rules Committee at 6-6. Lacking the required majority, bills would be blocked and thus defeated without ever reaching the House floor.
During one of his televised debates with Vice President Nixon, then Senator Kennedy had recognized the problems he would face in getting progressive legislation past the House Rules Committee were he to be elected President:
MR. VANOCUR: Senator, you've been promising the voters that if you are elected president you'll try and push through Congress bills on medical aid to the aged, a comprehensive minimum hourly wage bill, federal aid to education. Now, in the August post-convention session of the Congress, when you at least held up the possibility you could one day be president and when you had overwhelming majorities, especially in the Senate, you could not get action on these bills. Now how do you feel that you'll be able to get them in January -But, unlike today, President Kennedy refused to accept the status quo, he refused to allow two bigots from his own party to single handedly stop legislation, he was determined to change the House rules. And Kennedy acted quickly, acting even before he would take the oath of office. When the new Congress assembled at the start of January 1961, President-Elect Kennedy conferred with House Speaker Sam Rayburn. They agreed that the easiest way to overcome Smith would be to expand the House Rules Committee by three members, two to be named by Speaker Rayburn, one to be named by the Republican leadership. On January 31, 1961, only eleven days after President Kennedy had taken the oath of office, Sam Rayburn, for the first time since first becoming Speaker back in 1940, stepped down from the Speaker's podium and pleaded with the House to add the three members to the Rules Committee. After one hour of debate the House voted, 217 to 212 to make the change.
MR. KENNEDY: Well as you take the bills -
MR. VANOCUR: - if you weren't able to get them in August?
MR. KENNEDY: If I may take the bills, we did pass in the Senate a bill uh - to provide a dollar twenty-five cent minimum wage. It failed because the House did not pass it and the House failed by eleven votes. And I might say that two-thirds of the Republicans in the House voted against a dollar twenty-five cent minimum wage and a majority of the Democrats sustained it - nearly two-thirds of them voted for the dollar twenty-five. We were threatened by a veto if we passed a dollar and a quarter . . . . Secondly, we passed a federal aid to education bill in the Senate. It failed to come to the floor of the House of Representatives. It was killed in the Rules Committee. And it is a fact in the August session that the four members of the Rules Committee who were Republicans joining with two Democrats voted against sending the aid to education bill to the floor of the House. Four Democrats voted for it. Every Republican on the Rules Committee voted against sending that bill to be considered by the members of the House of Representatives.
Howard Smith remained chairman, but liberal Democrats now enjoyed an 8 to 7 majority on the Rules Committee. Without the foresight and political courage of John F. Kennedy and Sam Rayburn, none of the Great Society legislation - Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare, the War on Poverty -would have been possible. All this legislation would have been buried in "Judge Smith's Graveyard."
Concerning an earlier success of Congressional Reform, back in 1890, back when the Republicans were the good guys and the Democrats the bad guys, the late historian Barbara Tuchman wrote:
To [Speaker] Reed the issue was survival of representative government. If the Democrats could prevent that legislation which the Republicans by virtue of their electoral victory could rightfully expect to enact, they would in effect be setting aside the verdict of the election. The rights of the minority, he believed, were preserved by freedom to debate and to vote but when the minority was able to frustrate action by the majority, "it becomes a tyranny."Professor Tuchman's words ring true today. Last week a majority of U.S. Senators, 54, voted for expanded background checks for would-be gun purchasers, a measure supported by the vast majority of Americans and most gun owners, but the measure is defeated because of an inane 60 vote rule. Since his first election in 2008, President Obama has been defeated time and time again by a minority of Senators. Cynacism has set in, the Democrats, including the President, have looked inept and stupid - all because of the filibuster. Even during the brief period that Democrats held a 60 vote majority, we were held hostage by the likes of Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln (is it just a coincidence all three are out of the Senate?) The filibuster may have served a purpose when it was used sparingly, for only the most important and controversial legislation. But it has been abused, the will of the majority has been set aside time and time again, and it must be abolished, NOW. Until it is abolished, we can propose this, and we can champion that, but we will labor in vain. This must not only be our first priority, it must be our ONLY priority!