Everett Dirksen and his fellow moderate Republicans (a now virtually extinct species) transcended partisanship in 1964 and supplied the key votes to pass the historic Civil Rights Act. Now flash forward 50 years. Can you imagine how today’s Republicans would respond if a major civil rights bill was on the table?
Actually there’s no need to speculate about that, because we already know the answer. There is indeed such a bill on the table - the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 - but, all too predictably, the congressional GOP’s reaction has been colder than a meat locker.
This sorry saga began last June, when the five Republican appointees on the U.S Supreme Court shredded the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The VRA, also enacted with huge support from moderate Republicans, empowered the Justice Department to fight minority vote suppression in nine states, and in parts of six others. (Those states were singled out for their longstanding discriminatory behavior). The VRA was reauthorized by Congress four times - in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006 - always with huge support from Republican members.
But the five Republican justices gutted the law’s key enforcement powers. Why? Because John Roberts decreed (in one of the most hilarious lines of 2013) that racial disenfranchisement “is no longer the problem it once was.” Clearly, that guy needs to get out more.
However, Roberts tossed an olive branch to Congress. He invited the lawmakers to revise and update the law, to maybe make it possible for the Justice Department to stop vote suppression without picking on those 15 states. I thought that was a real howler, since Congress is so dysfunctional, anything more complicated than a Boy Scout resolution strains its collective cognition.
Nevertheless, three months ago, Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin announced that he was co-sponsoring a House bill to save the VRA. He called the act “one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed and is vital to our commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in our electoral process.” Under his fixes, any state committing five election discrimination violations over a 15-year span would be subject to Justice Department supervision. Only four states with persistent discriminatory behavior - Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi - would still be subject to ongoing Justice scrutiny. And most voter-ID schemes would be exempt from Justice scrutiny, a big sop to conservatives.
Would you care to guess how many Republican leaders have endorsed his bill, and many House hearings have been held on his bill?
The deafening silence tells us all we need to know about today’s Republican party. Sensenbrenner would’ve had plenty of company back in the ‘60s heyday of moderates like Dirksen; heck, he had plenty of company in 2006 when the VRA was reauthorized by a Republican House, 390-33. But the GOP has lurched so far rightward in the last eight years that ‘06 seems as distant as the era of rotary phones.
And while today’s House GOP leaves the VRA gutted, 8 of the 15 states formerly under Justice supervision have predictably rushed to enact vote suppression schemes - curbing early voting and Sunday voting (both of which are popular among minorities), ending election day registration, all the usual stuff. One month after John Roberts decreed that racism was over, Republicans in North Carolina ended same-day registration, cut early voting by a week, required photo ID, and killed a program that signed up high school kids to vote when they turned 18.
Jim Sensenbrenner, virtually alone in his House party, says that we need to restore the VRA’s protections and “ensure that every citizen has an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy.” Good luck, pal. How tragic it is that the congressional Republicans who made history 50 years ago have been so betrayed by their heirs.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at email@example.com.