The approval rating of Congress stands at an abysmal 13 percent, and President Obama’s approval has dropped as well. In recent polls, the clear majority of Americans want their national leaders to work across party lines to provide solutions to our country’s most pressing issues. Notwithstanding this strong public sentiment, both parties struggle with turning the talk of bipartisan leadership into reality. The effective bipartisan leadership used by both political parties and the White House in passing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 can serve as a template for the 112th Congress and the Obama administration.
Following the spring 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Kennedy administration began drafting civil rights legislation. After Kennedy’s tragic assassination, President Lyndon Johnson urged Congress to pass civil rights legislation promptly to honor his memory. In 1964, the U.S. Senate was made up of 67 Democrats and 33 Republicans, and 20 southern Democrats were adamantly opposed to the civil rights bill. Hence, Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), the majority whip, needed at least 20 Republican Senators to vote for cloture and end what turned out to be the longest filibuster in the Senate’s history (534 hours, one minute and 51 seconds). The final vote tally for cloture, thus ensuring passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, came to 44 Democrats and 27 Republicans in favor and 23 Democrats and six Republicans opposed. Four key lessons can be gleaned from passing this historic legislation.
Lesson One: Early and Active Involvement of the Minority Party
President Kennedy knew that he needed to involve Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL) early in negotiations. The bottom line was that the Democrats needed him to persuade enough Republicans to support cloture. In June 1963, the Kennedy administration gave Dirksen an early draft of their legislative proposal. That same month, President Kennedy invited Senate Republican leaders to the White House for a general discussion of civil rights legislation.
In early 1964, the House passed a strong civil rights bill by an overwhelming 290-to-130 margin with bipartisan support from 152 Democrats and 138 Republicans. But since the Senate had killed nearly all civil rights legislation for decades, the real battle had just begun. Immediately following passage of the House bill, President Johnson urged Majority Whip Humphrey to spend time with Minority Leader Dirksen, who was the key to passing the bill in the Senate, “You’ve got to let him have a piece of the action. You drink with Dirksen! You talk with Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!”
In addition, Senator Humphrey hosted weekly bipartisan meetings with Republican leaders that focused on cloture and floor strategy for the civil rights legislation. Moreover, near-daily meetings occurred for the bipartisan staff representing Senators who provided floor management for the bill.
In today’s environment, it is hard to imagine this kind of bipartisan interaction between congressional members and staff. Yet for bipartisanship leadership to truly work, it is essential for congressional leadership on both sides to be willing to meet, listen and work together in search of common ground. This interaction must occur early and often in the legislative process. Importantly, the president must also be willing to exert his considerable influence to direct leaders from both parties to follow this bipartisan process. Finally, it is worth noting that this process takes time, involves hard work and cannot be rushed.
Lesson Two: Respectful Relationships Matter
Another key factor that enabled the successful passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the longstanding cordial relationships that existed across party lines among congressional leaders. When the House bill was delivered to the Senate, Majority Leader Mansfield rose from his desk and, facing Senator Dirksen, said, “I appeal to the distinguished Minority Leader whose patriotism has always taken precedence over his partisanship to join me in…the resolution of this grave national issue.”
Similarly, Majority Whip Humphrey said about Dirksen on Meet the Press: “[H]e will support a good civil rights bill that would put his country above party…Senator Dirksen is not only a great Senator, he is a great American.” During Senate negotiations, Humphrey visited with Dirksen nearly every day, seeking his revisions and input to the legislation.
The friendly relationships with Dirksen also extended to Democratic presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Senator Dirksen said this of his relationship with President Kennedy: “[He] has been my friend for 14 years…he calls me to the White House. He sits in the rocker. I tell him what I think from the bottom of my heart, and I think that’s why he keeps asking me back.”
Dirksen’s relationship with President Johnson was even closer, stemming from Johnson’s previous role as Senate majority leader. In the evenings, after the Senate’s work was done, they would visit each other’s offices and partake from their well-stocked liquor cabinets. Over a glass (or two) of bourbon, they shared stories and confidences, and a genuine affection and friendship developed. This respectful relationship continued when Johnson became president. Dirksen often visited the White House to have a drink, “chew the fat, reminisce, tell stories, laugh, and really enjoy themselves.” After the civil rights bill passed, President Johnson gave credit to his long-time friend and colleague: “In this critical hour, Senator Dirksen came through, as I hoped he would. He knew his country’s future was at stake. He knew what he could do to help. He knew what he had to do as a leader.”
Consequently, respectful relationships across party lines can have a significant impact on the legislative process. Notably, these relationships grow meaningful when the interaction is regular and informal.
Lesson Three: Compromise Can Lead to Better Public Policy
Originally, President Johnson insisted that the Senate pass a bill that differed little from the House version. In the end, however, both Republican and Democratic leadership made compromises to reach a substantively acceptable bill to both parties.
Senator Dirksen left his imprint on the civil rights bill with 10 substantive amendments that mainly focused on more involvement of local and state government in enforcement of fair employment and public accommodations. He met repeatedly with Republican “swing vote” senators to make the bill acceptable, a strategy that proved successful in getting 27 Republican Senators to vote for cloture, thus finally ending the 52-day filibuster.
Clearly, the Democratic leadership also deserves great credit for pursuing a truly bipartisan process. Both Majority Leader Mansfield and Majority Whip Humphrey spent countless hours with Republican leaders to craft the final version of the bill. In relaying to President Johnson that an agreement had been reached, Humphrey stated, “Mr. President, we’ve got a much better bill than anyone ever dreamed possible. We haven’t weakened this bill one damn bit; in fact, in some places we’ve improved it.”
In reality, neither political party has a lock on wisdom when it comes to complex public policy issues. Indeed, as shown by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, compromise can lead to improved legislation.
Lesson Four: Putting Country Before Party
Majority Leader Dirksen, in advocating for the civil right legislation, stated: “I trust that the time will never come in my political career when the waters of partisanship will flow so swift and so deep as to obscure my estimate of the national interest.” His leadership approach was based on a deep belief that the Senate was a public institution that must work and be “a two-way street…that requires the efforts of both parties.” Dirksen felt that the minority party had a duty to the country to not merely be obstructionist. Clearly, the Republican Senators in 1964 had the votes necessary to stop the civil rights bill dead in its tracks.
Similarly, Majority Leader Mansfield’s No. 1 objective was to make the Senate function as a viable institution. In the end, congressional leadership from both parties and the White House placed the national interest above partisanship in passing the landmark legislation.
It is possible to move away from the hyper-partisan atmosphere of today’s Congress and return to a more civil spirit of leadership—and lessons from the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act can provide significant guidance. It will take time and persistence to truly change the political culture, but Americans want their elected officials to work together across the political aisle to provide solutions to our country’s most pressing issues. iBi