Policy

LBJ Civil Rights Gambit Set Stage for Modern Maneuver

Play shows how a key legislative move helped pass the Civil Right Act

Jack Willis as LBJ and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King in "All the Way." (Photo courtesy of Arena Stage)

It was a moment in history, a moment when President Lyndon B. Johnson needed to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 past a segregationist committee chairman and onto a more receptive Senate floor.  

The solution he came up within 1964 has become one of the most common maneuvers in the Senate chamber, invoking a rule that allows the majority leader to bypass committee consideration.  

The moment, dramatized in the play "All the Way" now at the Arena Stage, shows how LBJ used his legendary legislative maneuvering to achieve what is arguably his lasting legacy.  

The scene in "All the Way" features Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, who is the majority whip and running point for the Civil Rights Act on the floor.  

The House has passed a version of the bill, but Johnson appears genuinely stumped at how to avoid sending  the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee — a graveyard in this case since Chairman James Eastland of Mississippi would want no part of it. He and Humphrey also hoping to outsmart Richard Russell, the powerful Georgia senator who led the segregationist faction.  

Johnson has a sudden thought.  

"There is  a way we can completely bypass Eastland’s committee without either a discharge petition or a procedural vote. Nobody’s ever done it this way but it just might work," the Johnson character tells Humphrey.  

When LBJ says his gambit would involve waiving the second reading, Humphrey responds that such a maneuver would send the bill straight to Judiciary.  

"Ordinarily it would but what if, instead, you suddenly have the Senate majority leader reverse course and call for a straight up or down vote to put the bill on the Senate calendar. Russell won’t be expecting that," said Johnson.  

Observers of the modern Senate know all too well that such a maneuver would work — it has become so routine that it hardly garners a mention. Under Rule XIV, when there's objection to a second reading of a bill, it gets placed on the calendar of business, eligible to be called up.  

For LBJ, the trick was to bypass another rule, XXV, which required all bills to be referred to committees. Johnson would know that bypass was possible, since while he was majority leader in 1957, the Senate overturned a point of order related to Rule XXV.  

In the play, as in life, the presiding officer executed LBJ's plan.  

"The issue was again joined in 1964 when the Chair overruled a point of order that claimed that Rule XXV mandated the referral of a House bill that had been read twice, after a Senator objected to further proceedings thereon and asked that the bill be placed on the Calendar," explains "Riddick's Senate Procedure."  

The maneuver has become commonplace in the Senate. Just this year, the procedure to bypass committees under Rule XIV has been used for bills declaring that the Equal Protection clause applies to unborn children and another requiring the Securities and Exchange Commission to review small business capital formation.  

Contact Lesniewski at nielslesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @nielslesniewski. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.