In his memoir, Ex-SASC chairman Carl Levin weighs the fate of the legislative filibuster
By MELISSA NANN BURKE | The Detroit News | Published: May 10, 2021
DETROIT (Tribune News Service) — Progressives are clamoring to eliminate the filibuster in the Senate to pass President Joe Biden's agenda, and former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin's message to them is blunt: "You are looking at the wrong problem."
Democratic activists say abolishing the filibuster would allow them to advance priorities that Republicans won't go for, by ending the 60-vote super-majority required to pass most Senate legislation.
But Levin, a Michigan Democrat who represented the state for 36 years in the Senate, says it's not the filibuster that causes gridlock or blocks transformative legislation from becoming law.
The problem, he says in a new memoir, is Senate leaders' unwillingness to force the people who are threatening to filibuster to actually do so — to take the floor and talk for hours or days without breaks to defeat a measure. Democrats should call their bluff, he argues, because many of the threats are hollow.
"Most of the threats of filibuster succeed because the majority just throws in the towel. They don't want to change their weekend plans. Everyone wants to see the kids play soccer," Levin said in an interview. "But if you believe in your cause, then you got to fight for it."
The 86-year-old Levin said he, too, wants to shore up voting rights and increase the minimum wage, which he considers popular causes. "And so I kinda lecture my friends in the progressive caucuses ... 'Fight for what you believe in just as hard as people who are threatening to filibuster,'" he said.
Proponents of abolishing the filibuster include Levin's nephew, Democratic U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, both Michigan Democrats. Tlaib said this is a different time from when Sen. Carl Levin served, when bipartisanship is lacking, and the opposition is determined to block Democrats at every turn.
"We already know the filibuster came into existence to protect segregated states and uphold the Jim Crow era, and it's time for it to end," Tlaib said. "Voters delivered Democrats the White House, the Senate and the House, but the filibuster stands in the way of transformative legislation that people want."
The former senator argues in his book, "Getting to the Heart of the Matter," that eliminating the filibuster would destroy the Senate's ability to reach legislative compromise and would essentially turn the Senate into the U.S. House, where the majority sets procedure and the minority has little say in the legislative process.
Unlike the House and other legislative bodies, the Senate is unique in granting rights to the minority, such as the right to speak and offer amendments until 60 senators vote to cut off debate (invoke cloture), Levin says.
That 60-vote requirement is a "great engine of compromise," Levin writes, forcing a majority of less than 60 to reach out to the minority to get the votes it needs. At a time of deep political divisions, that cross-aisle reach is "particularly necessary," he concludes.
He adds that filibuster can also be used to halt "regressive" legislation and to promote progressive policies. He cites an example where, from the minority, he was able to use the rules to amend a highway bill to extend unemployment benefits for Michigan residents during a recession in 1982.
Levin was among only three Democrats who voted in 2013 to oppose the so-called "nuclear option" when the Democratic-led Senate reduced the number of votes needed for district judge nominations. He feared what it would lead to and, years later, a GOP-led Senate expanded the nuclear option to cover high court nominees.
"A whole lot of people have come up to me and said, 'You know, you were right. Look what we ended up with on the Supreme Court,'" said Levin, referring to former President Donald Trump's appointment of three justices. "You can't just expect that you're going to use a nuclear option, but the other guys aren't going to use it."
Levin in his book returns repeatedly to the idea that the goal of elected officials in a diverse democracy should be working with others who have different points of view to compromise and achieve a common cause.
"If you don't come to Congress to compromise, you don't come to Congress to govern," he writes.
Levin, who retired in 2015, says in the book that he didn't leave the Senate over its gridlock, though he did grow weary of the time required to raise increasingly higher levels of money for reelection. Instead, his age was the "major" factor.
If Levin had run for a seventh term, he would have been 86 at its end in 2021. "I had seen too many colleagues who had stayed too long and observed the decline in their intellectual stamina and their health," he writes.
That was "somewhat prescient," he adds, noting his diagnosis with lung cancer at 83. Levin declined to talk about his treatment in an interview last week but said the cancer is "steady."
A Harvard-educated lawyer, Levin served as president of the Detroit City Council in the 1970s with the goal of improving the city in the aftermath of the 1967 uprising.
With the support of Mayor Coleman Young, the council took on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which owned thousands of abandoned, dilapidated homes in Detroit. The council adopted an ordinance allowing the city to tear down the HUD-owned properties, despite a threat from the agency that doing so would get them indicted.
"I said, are you kidding? What jury is going to convict me?" he recalled. "We went out there with a bulldozer."
Those days on the council helped prompt Levin to run for the Senate after he found congressional oversight and accountability of HUD to be lacking. He made going after wasteful federal programs and spending the centerpiece of his campaign.
Levin said he learned the value of compromise on a diverse city council and carried the lesson to the Senate, where he chaired the high-profile Armed Services Committee and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations — the premiere investigative body in Congress.
Levin joined the Armed Services Committee because he didn't know much about the military and wanted to learn. He went on to chair the panel and targeted Defense Department waste and cost overruns. He ordered an inquiry into torture of detainees in U.S. military custody during the Bush administration.
Levin writes fondly of his committee working relationships with GOP Sens. John Warner of Virginia and John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
McCain's floor tribute to Levin upon his retirement is "one of the things I treasure most," he said. McCain said Levin — who was never in the military — had served the Armed Forces in an "exemplary manner," always kept his word and managed to keep members focused on committee business, despite sometimes heated disputes.
Levin's calm composure and thoughtful approach amid partisan acrimony or campaign attacks were a theme throughout his career, according to anecdotes in the memoir, in which opponents tried to provoke but rarely ruffled Levin.
He recounts a time during a debate when City Council member Jack Kelley yelled at Levin, "You're a whore, Levin! All you lawyers are whores!"
Levin writes, "All I could do was shake my head and say, 'Aw, come on, Jack.'"
Levin, who took over as chair of the PSI panel in 2001, was known for his probes of offshore tax havens, money laundering, abusive credit card practices, the 2008 financial crisis and multinational corporations gaming the tax system. He earned a reputation for tenacious questioning of witnesses.
His book starts with an account of his days growing up in Detroit, the youngest of three in a family committed to public service.
Uncle Ted Levin and cousin Avern Cohn served as federal judges, and father Saul, an attorney, sat on the Michigan Corrections Commission. Saul also represented migrant farmworkers and frequently traveled to Mexico, once with the author John Steinbeck.
"Politics was always the subject of family conversation," Levin writes.
His older brother and life-long mentor, Sandy, served for 36 years in the U.S. House and was succeeded by son Andy in 2019.
Carl jokes about how often people on Capitol Hill would mix him up with Sandy during the 32 years they overlapped in Congress — a record for service by a pair of siblings. The brothers kept a "confusion file" that they enjoyed reviewing about people writing to the wrong office or mistaking them on the street.
Carl recalled one time someone greeted him on the street, saying, "Hi, Sandy," and the senator decided to have a bit of fun. "I asked the fellow whether or not he knew my brother, Carl, to which he responded: 'I do, but not as well as I know you, Sandy.'"
The brothers worked on multiple trade issues together, including their opposition to the former North American Free Trade Agreement and pushing to open Chinese markets closed to U.S. exports.
Levin recounts natural resource issues he prioritized over the years, including protecting the health of the Great Lakes and adding various areas of Michigan to wilderness protection laws including Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, as well as the creation of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
With the late Rep. John Dingell, the Dearborn Democrat whom Levin considered his closest ally in the House after Sandy, Levin championed the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and the River Raisin National Battlefield Park.
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