Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE), joining a parade of Republican Senators angry that a minority of Senators can no longer obstruct President Obama’s judicial and executive nominees, took to the Senate floor Friday to compare his caucus’ plight to that of abolitionists in the 1800s — a comparison that probably would have shocked abolitionists from the 1800s. Indeed, for much of the Nineteenth Century, the Senate’s anti-majoritarian design played a crucial role in thwarting efforts by abolitionists to eliminate the South’s “peculiar institution.”
Last month, Senate Democrats invoked a procedural maneuver to allow a majority of Senators to end debate on nominees and eliminate endless filibusters. The change affected all nominees except Supreme Court Justices — a move Johanns blasted as one that “effectively silences the Senate minority.”
In a lengthy speech against the rule change Friday, Johanns (who himself was confirmed by the Senate when he became President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture) argued that the right of the minority to obstruct was vital because unpopular ideas sometimes become more popular over time. Although the rule change did not affect legislation — and it is not possible to amend a confirmation vote — the former Nebraska Governor compared the Senate GOP’s blocking of District Court judges to the first Senator to oppose slavery:
JOHANNS: They can appoint the entire judiciary of the United States in the District Courts and in the Circuit Courts with absolutely no involvement whatsoever from the minority. None. That’s what their rule change did. Let me take that rule change and think out loud about where we put ourselves as a country. I wonder who was the first United States Senator in our history who came to the floor and said, “My fellow Senators, I have thought about this, I have contemplated it, maybe I have even prayed about it. And I believe the day has arrived to end slavery in the United States. And I will be attaching an amendment to every bill to end that horrific practice. I’ll bet they were a very lonely United States Senator at that point in time. But I’m also guessing that that Senator and tenacious other Senators along the way exercised their rights as a minority and as an individual United States Senator to continue to force that issue. What a courageous, remarkable thing to do.
Watch the video:
The truth about the Senate and slavery is much less friendly to Johanns’ effort to defend minority rule. Under the “Great Compromise” of 1787, Constitutional Convention delegates agreed to have a bicameral legislature with a House of Representatives (apportioned based on population) and a Senate (in which the smaller states had as much representation as the larger ones). The states also agreed to count slaves as three-fifths of a person, so as to give southern states more representation. Though slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, rendering the three-fifths rule moot, the Great Compromise established the Senate as a profoundly undemocratic institution. In modern America, Wyoming receives just as many senators as California, despite the fact that California has close to 70 times as many people as Wyoming.
In the 1800s, the battle to maintain control over the Senate became a centerpiece of the national debate over slavery. Because free states were more populous than slave states, slaveholders looked to the malapportioned Senate as their best chance to ward off federal legislation limiting slavery. This is why the Missouri Compromise of 1820 admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free one in order to preserve the Senate’s balance. It is also a major reason why, after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed both territories to be settled under a policy of “popular sovereignty,” both abolitionist and pro-slavery settlers migrated to Kansas in the hopes of influencing whether that territory would be admitted as a free or slave state.
In other words, rather than speeding the end of slavery, the U.S. Senate’s protections for minority voices played a key role in preserving slavery in the early days of the Union.