Why Couldn’t Congress Pass a Bill Like the Civil Rights Act Today?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

July 4 has passed us by with a bang or two, but another major American landmark passed with a fair amount of less noise. July 2 marks the anniversary of the the Civil Rights Act, and this year, looking back on its passage through Congress in 1964, it looks particularly miraculous. The Civil Rights Act took an incredible degree of cooperation — of give and take — between parties. Of course, if the Civil Rights Act were to face Congress today, it’s unlikely that it would be seen as controversial, so realistically it would pass without question. But if it were brought before a divided Congress today — and remained as controversial as it was fifty years ago — it’s unlikely the current set up would manage to pass such major and difficult legislation. Our party split simply doesn’t have the bipartisan capabilities to pass a controversial bill.

Todd Perdum, author of An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, spoke in an interview with PBS News on his book and the efforts behind the Act’s passage. He listed Congress member Bill McCulloch (R-Ohio) as a major face behind the Act, calling him a “rock-ribbed conservative” who was “just as conservative as John Boehner in most ways.”

Yet McCulloch had the support of his party — even with a mere 2.7 percent of his population who were black — and managed to strike a bargain with Kennedy and the Democratic party. “He said, if you promise not to water this down in the Senate … and if you promise to give us Republicans equal credit going into next year’s presidential election, I will bring along my Republican Caucus,” explained Perdum, eventually comparing reactions in 1964 to reactions to Obamacare. “Could you imagine that happening today, on party removing the single most contentious domestic issue, as a political issue, and working cooperatively?”

Well, could you, even pushing Obamacare aside for the moment? “I’ll make clear we have no intention ever of going to conference on the Senate bill,” said House Speaker John Boehner to CNN, referring to immigration reform.

“Middle-class families can’t wait for Republicans in Congress to do stuff. So sue me,” said President Barack Obama — and as we all know by now, that’s precisely what Boehner plans to do, saying Obama has violated the balance of power with his executive orders.

Rather than get dragged down into what we all know too well about the political environment in today’s government — heated midterm elections, gridlocked Congress, lame duck potential in the presidency, and overall economic and social tensions — it’s worth taking a look back at some of the extraordinarily different conditions back in ’64 that allowed Congress to accomplish what it did.

The composition of the Republican party today often leads people to forget that it was once very much the party of diversity and civil rights. Today, the GOP is considerably less racially and gender diverse than the Democratic party. The GOP was shown to be 89 percent non-Hispanic white, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, leaving it a mere 2 percent non-Hispanic black, 6 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, 1 percent other, and 1 percent undesignated. On social topics, from immigration to welfare, Republicans tend to sit on the conservative end, and racial and feminist sensitivity has hardly been a GOP strong point over the last few decades. But back when the Civil Rights Act was passed, the Republican party was the champion of black rights.

According to Purdum, the number of Republican votes in the Senate far outweighed Democratic votes — Southern Democrats were resistant to the bill, but both parties had champions for the effort. Lyndon Johnson was also given a great deal of credit for his involvement in the bill’s passage, representing Democrats who helped push the bill along while preserving its strength. This highlights the importance of having a batter from the other team working on the same issue, but able to keep a balance with his own party who was not entirely on board at the time. “I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in the cause … The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation,” said Johnson in his famous “We shall overcome” speech delivered during a join session of Congress.

Grassroots support was also vital to the passage, efforts from those in the NAACP, from local leaders and members of the African American community who were, unfortunately, poorly represented within Congress numerically speaking.

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