This op-ed was originally published in The Post and Courier on June 16, 2021
By: James E. Clyburn
June 16, 2021
I credit my love of history and respect for historic events to my dad’s often-stated axiom, “anything that has happened before can happen again.” That was my constant refrain when my high school world history students questioned the efficacy of, or expressed boredom with, things that happened “way back then.”
At the beginning of every school year I would ask them to make a written note of two dates. The first, 476 A.D., was the year the great Roman Empire fell, casting the world into intellectual darkness. Although the Roman Empire did not fall until the fifth century, history remembers the massive fire that destroyed 70% of Rome in 64 A.D. And Nero, one of Rome’s most infamous emperors, was reputed to have played the fiddle while the city went up in flames.
Today, we are witnessing the modern-day version of Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned. The redlines were there in the last two presidential elections, and the headlines are broadcasting daily warnings of the simmering blazes.
Fomented by the corrupt behavior and big lie of the 45th president, political discourse is being stymied, and free and fair elections are being suppressed. News reporters and political opponents of the former president are being subjected to threats and intimidation, and the sworn guardians of our democracy seem unwilling or unable to fulfill their duties and responsibilities.
Dangerous flames are being ignited by Republican legislators in 48 of our 50 states, proposing and enacting laws designed to suppress voters and dilute votes, and overturn election results they do not like. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation to put out these fires, but some senators seem content to fan them.
West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin recently penned an op-ed in his home-state Charleston Gazette-Mail expressing opposition to “voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner.” We should be reminded that the 15th Amendment, banning racial discrimination in voting, was passed with the votes of only one party. If my friend and colleague’s sentiments had been followed back then, this landmark amendment — granting black men the right to vote — would not have been added to the Constitution.
I agree with Sen. Manchin when he wrote that the right to vote “should not be about party or politics.” And while I also prefer bipartisanship, the fire threatening our democracy must be extinguished, even if Republicans refuse to stop fiddling.
Sen. Manchin also declared that he “will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.” I, for one, have not asked him to. In fact, what I have proposed honors the filibuster traditions and enhances its efficacy. The country’s founders did not create the filibuster. It originated as an inadvertent omission in Senate rules as a mechanism to limit debate. There is value in occasionally extending debate on political and legislative issues so that minority views can be more fully discussed.
However, to protect the country’s financial security from the whims of a small minority, Congress in 1974 created an exception to the 60-vote requirement called budget reconciliation. The root word of “reconciliation” is “reconcile,” which means “to restore harmony or make consistent or congruous.” Consequently, “reconciliation” is a term more aptly applied to constitutional rights than to budgetary endeavors.
I believe reconciliation principles should apply to measures securing constitutionally protected rights such as voting. Extending debate on issue advocacy is one thing, but it is another thing when constitutional rights are at stake. While voter-suppression laws disproportionately impact minority voters, in the end, Republicans’ refusal to respect the will of the people will have serious consequences for all Americans.
Time and circumstances call into question whether it is true that Nero played his fiddle as the great city-state of the Roman Empire burned. It is clear to me, however, that the greatest democracy in today’s world is on fire, and the Senate is fiddling away precious time.