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'Kill Switch' Examines The Racist History Of The Senate Filibuster


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Congress is trying to return to normal after the insurrection. But what is normal? There are more threats of violence surrounding the inauguration. The norm-breaking that became the norm during the Trump presidency is about to change with the Biden administration. Another change will be the new Democratic majority in the Senate. After newly elected Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are sworn in, the Senate will be evenly divided, 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats. But Vice President Kamala Harris will have the tie-breaking vote.

But how much power does that actually give Democrats in the Senate? A majority is not enough to pass legislation anymore and hasn't been for a long time because of the modern use of the filibuster. It takes three-fifths of the Senate to override a filibuster, which means the minority only needs 41 votes to prevent any bill from even coming to a vote. My guest Adam Jentleson says the modern use of the filibuster has crippled American democracy, enabling the minority to systematically block bills favored by the majority. He's the author of the new book, "Kill Switch," about the rise of the modern Senate. He knows the ins and outs of Senate rules because he worked as Harry Reid's deputy chief of staff when Reid was the Democratic leader. Jentleson joined Reid's staff in 2010 and stayed until 2017.

"Kill Switch" is a history of how the filibuster started as a tool of Southern senators upholding slavery, and then later was used as a tool to block civil rights legislation. The book concludes with Senator Mitch McConnell's advances in the use of filibuster as an obstructionist tool. Jentleson is now public affairs director at Democracy Forward, which was founded in 2017 to fight corruption in the executive branch. We recorded our interview yesterday morning.

Adam Jentleson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ADAM JENTLESON: It's wonderful to be here.

GROSS: It's a pleasure to have you. Let's start with the insurrection. Where were you? And what was your reaction as it was happening?

JENTLESON: I was actually in Georgetown, which is sort of, you know, in the northern part of Washington, D.C., watching it on television. And what was expected to be sort of a routine - well, not routine, but at least an event where we knew what the outcome was going to be turned into something very different and shocking. Even though we knew there were going to be objections and extended debate, it seemed like the outcome was inevitable. And watching what unfolded was just - I don't really - still don't have words to describe it. It was something dangerous and scary and very deeply depressing.

GROSS: Your new book is about how Congress became so polarized. The insurrection was designed to disrupt and punish everyone in Congress voting to certify Joe Biden's win and to prevent him from taking office. What is the larger meaning you take away from the fact that this happened, that this could happen?

JENTLESON: I think that what's clear is that the party itself, its structures, its leaders and the base voters that it responds to, have morphed into something that is much similar to the type of far-right parties that we see in Western Europe. And I think that it's really important for us as a society to confront this fact head on. There are lots of good Republicans. There are good Republican leaders. The problem is that, in politics, the business is winning elections. And what politicians tend to do in almost every case is follow their voters. And I think the danger here is that the voters are the same ones who embraced Donald Trump from the very beginning, who continue to stick with him through all of the outrages of the last four years and will continue to pull the party in this direction.

GROSS: What powers do members of Congress have to censure or remove or in any way address the members of Congress who continued to object to the certification of Joe Biden's victory after it was certified time and time again and after lawsuits upheld it? Knowing now what we know, that they encouraged this mob to - you know, and we see what happened. You know, they invaded Congress. They ransacked part of Congress. Some of them were armed. So what power do members of Congress have?

JENTLESON: They actually have a lot of power here. The courts have given Congress itself a lot of leeway to determine appropriate action for members that they want to punish. And the types of punishments range from censure or reprimands, you know, which are sort of, you know, a finger wag, but much more than that - I mean, it is something that does not happen frequently and would be a massive blemish on the members' records - all the way to expulsion and formally expelling them from the body.

This has not happened very often. But it has happened. And that could be an appropriate remedy here. If the chamber decides to do it - this is true for both the House and Senate - it requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers. So it would require some Republican cooperation. But they can absolutely expel these members if they decide they want to take a hard line and make it very clear that what we've seen in the last few weeks falls outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior in our democracy. They can expel these members. There's nothing stopping them from doing that.

GROSS: House Democrats are now thinking about legislation that will put limits on the president's pardon powers, mandate the release of a president's tax returns, give new enforcement powers to independent agencies and Congress and more prohibitions against financial conflicts of interest in the White House. What do you think the odds are that legislation like that would pass?

JENTLESON: I think they're pretty good. You know, these are very narrow majorities we're looking at in both the House and Senate. So you know, a stiff wind in either direction could determine the fate of that legislation. And in the Senate, as we've mentioned here, you'll need 60 votes to pass things like that. So you would absolutely need some Republican cooperation. But I think that if restoring norms and reinforcing our guardrails are a priority that Republicans share, I think these are the sorts of nonpartisan, systemic reforms that are required. So I think there's a decent chance that they'll pass.

GROSS: Do you think that there's a chance that, having seen the consequences of extreme rhetoric and extreme views, that the partisan rhetoric, the polarizing will be toned down?

JENTLESON: I'd really love to say yes. But I have trouble looking at the events of the last four to five years and being confident in saying yes. I think that the pattern we've seen from the day that Trump entered the Republican primary in 2016 is outrage after outrage, which is immediately followed by words of condemnation from elected officials, but then more importantly, is followed by acquiescence among all Republicans in the party. And I think that is the problem that we face. And I'm not sure what evidence there is that that pattern is going to change right now.

GROSS: Let's get to your book, "Kill Switch." So much of it is about the history of the filibuster and how it's become an obstructionist tool. So let's start with a basic refresher of how the filibuster works and how it can be used and has been used as an obstructionist tool.

JENTLESON: Sure. So in the modern Senate, the way the filibuster works is it's essentially silent but deadly. I think the common perception of what it looks like continues to be aligned with Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" holding the Senate floor, giving a long-winded speech. Perhaps people think of famous senators like Huey Long or Strom Thurmond.

But in the modern Senate, the filibuster looks nothing like that. And actually, speaking is not even required. All you have to do when a bill comes to the floor is have a member of your staff send an email to what's called the cloakroom, which is sort of the nerve center of action on the floor, saying that your member, your - the senator you work for, has an objection to this bill. That single email could be a phone call, could be a conversation in the hallway. That single objection raises the threshold from passing a bill from the simple majority, where technically the rules still have the threshold today, to a supermajority of what is now 60 votes.

And that is a filibuster. There's no speaking required. No one has to take the floor. No one has to explain themselves. If a senator raises this objection and increases the threshold from a majority to a supermajority, they never actually have to explain themselves at any point. They just do it. And it's become accepted. And that is why it's become normalized that most bills in the Senate require 60 votes to pass.

But I just want to emphasize that this is not actually a matter of the rules themselves because the rules still state that a simple majority is what's required to pass. This is a matter of a procedural hurdle that's come to be developed over the last few decades and become routinized. The reason bills need 60 votes to pass is that they can't clear that procedural hurdle to get to the final vote. And that is the problem that is paralyzing the Senate today.

GROSS: Why can just one person hold it up?

JENTLESON: Well, the Senate is designed to give an enormous amount of deference to every individual senator. This is - seems a bit outdated right now because so much power has become invested in the partisan leaders of each party. This is something the book discusses as well, how that has developed. This is also a function of the last few decades. But originally, the Senate was supposed to be a small, intimate chamber where every single senator had as much power as the next. And so what we're seeing today is sort of a residue of the fact that each individual senator is supposed to have the power to hold up a bill if they choose to.

GROSS: So if one senator objects, it's basically understood to be a silent filibuster, kicking in the requirement for a three-fifths majority.

JENTLESON: That's exactly right. You know, they can go to the floor and give a speech if they want to. And sometimes they do, you know, to be performative or to try to drive a message. But they don't have to. And I think, you know, we can count on our fingers the number of times we've seen a speech like that happen in the last few years. And yet every single bill that has come to the floor in the Senate, more or less, has had this filibuster applied to it. So, you know, it is a silent filibuster in most cases that instantaneously, with that one objection, raises the threshold to a three-fifths supermajority.

GROSS: So in addition to blocking legislation, what else can the filibuster block?

JENTLESON: It can take up time is what it can do. Every single time the filibuster applies, you're adding about a week of floor time on to the calendar. And when you stack filibusters up one against another with the hundreds of bills that come to the floor in any given session of Congress, that creates an enormous drag. And I think that is a huge reason why we see such gridlock in Washington today. When it becomes routinized that every single bill that comes to the floor must take a week or more just to try to work through these procedural hurdles, it clogs the gears of government to a massive extent.

The filibuster used to be able to block nominations, but Senator Reid in 2013 changed the rules to lower the threshold permanently to a simple majority. When he made his change in 2013, the one category of nominations that it did not apply to was the Supreme Court. But then Senator McConnell changed the rule to lower the threshold for Supreme Court justices in 2017, when the nomination of Neil Gorsuch was before the Senate.

GROSS: So when Republicans were in power, they made it easier for them to confirm their nominees...

JENTLESON: That's right.

GROSS: ...After blocking Merrick Garland.

JENTLESON: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: So give us an example of how you saw the filibuster used during the Obama administration, when you were working for Harry Reid and he was the majority leader.

JENTLESON: So the example that sticks with me is the use of the filibuster to block a bipartisan background checks legislation after the massacre of first-graders in Newtown, Conn. And I still think I have not gotten over this episode. It was just so, so profoundly misaligned with how we think our government is supposed to operate. But it is a good example for showcasing how absurd things have gotten.

So in this case, you had two senators who could not have been more different - Joe Manchin of West Virginia, sort of a rough-edged populist, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, more of a sort of country club, Chamber of Commerce Republican - who came together in exactly the way the process is supposed to work. They formed a bipartisan bill to increase the use of background checks to gun purchases. This was a very reasonable step - some might argue not even enough - to take in response to the murder of 20 first-graders with an AR-15 assault rifle, but it seemed to be the least we could do.

They secured the support of a healthy majority of United States senators, from Republicans and Democrats; about 55 senators who supported it. They secured the support of lots of different interest groups and expert organizations from across the political spectrum. They had gun rights groups, and they had gun control groups behind the bill. And they secured a massive amount of public support. Polling at the time showed this legislation pulling in the 80- to 90% range. So, you know, everything to this point is going the way the process is supposed to work. Senators coming together, crafting a reasonable piece of legislation to a clear problem and bringing it to the floor.

And then this is where it goes off the rails. Somewhere during the debate, a single senator raised an objection, thus increasing the threshold for passage from a majority to a supermajority. And despite all of the support they had behind this bill and despite the clear need for this action, this bill failed. And during the week of debate that this bill was on the floor, almost none of the senators who opposed it had to come to the floor and explain themselves.

Mitch McConnell was the minority leader at the time. Democrats were in the majority. And over the entire week that this bill was on the floor, McConnell spent a total of about two minutes talking about it at all. He spent more time on the floor giving a tribute to Margaret Thatcher and celebrating the wins of the Louisville men's basketball team in the March Madness tournament that year.

So this is an example not just of how the filibuster blocks common-sense legislation from passing the Senate, but also the way in which it's become totally disconnected from the idea of debate, the idea that senators should be out on the floor discussing thoughtful approaches to legislation out in public. There was no debate. The bill was simply blocked. And the United States government went on record with no policy solution whatsoever to the murder of first-graders in Newtown, Conn.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Jentleson, author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." Jentleson worked as Senator Harry Reid's deputy chief of staff when Reid was the Democratic leader in the Senate. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Adam Jentleson, author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." It's about how the Senate became as polarized as it is today and how the filibuster became a tool enabling the minority to systematically block the majority. He writes about the filibuster's roots in Southern senators upholding slavery and later in blocking civil rights legislation. The filibuster was not part of the Founding Fathers' plan. They wanted simple majorities to pass legislation. How was the filibuster initiated and why?

JENTLESON: Slowly, over the course of time, but primarily to serve the interests of slave states and try to preserve slavery against the march of progress and a growing majority of both states and Americans who wanted to abolish slavery. The filibuster did not exist in name or practice until about the middle of the 19th century. So this was well after all of the Founding Fathers had passed away. James Madison was one of the longest lived and an ardent opponent of the filibuster to the extent that it sort of was coming into existence in the 1830s. And he passed away in the early 1830s.

So the progenitor of the filibuster, its main innovator, was John C. Calhoun, the great nullifier, the leader, father of the Confederacy. And Calhoun innovated the filibuster for the specific purpose of empowering the planter class. He was a senator from South Carolina. His main patrons were the powerful planters. And he was seeking to create a regional constituency to empower himself against the march of progress and against - what was becoming clear was a superior economic model in the North. So Calhoun started to innovate forms of obstruction that came to be known as the filibuster.

GROSS: So you describe John Calhoun as, like, basically, the father of the filibuster. Let's be clear who he was. I mean, he not only wanted to protect slave owners, he argued that slavery created racial harmony and improved the lives of slaves. You quote him in the book. He said, never before has the Black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. Amazing that he could justify that slavery was improving the lives of enslaved people.

JENTLESON: That's right. And it's important to note at this time, you know - not to give people of that era too much credit for being enlightened. But, you know, there was a shift in public opinion going on regarding slavery in the United States. The abolitionist movement was beginning to gain traction. And, you know, while folks weren't exactly at the enlightened state of believing in full equality, they recognized that slavery had - was, at best, a necessary evil, emphasis on the evil.

And so Calhoun took it upon himself to argue that there was nothing evil about it. In that same speech that you quoted, he went on to explain that slavery was not a necessary evil, but, quote, "a positive good." He was such an ardent defender and such a vehement racist that he couldn't even accept the sort of antebellum acknowledgement that there were parts of the institution that were evil. So it was very clear what his motivations were. He wanted to preserve slavery. And the filibuster was what he deployed to achieve that goal.

GROSS: Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Jentleson, author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." He worked on Harry Reid's staff from 2010 to 2017, first as communications director, then his deputy chief of staff. We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Adam Jentleson, author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." It's about how the Senate became the polarized institution it is today and how the filibuster became a tool of the minority to systematically block the majority in the Senate. Jentleson worked as the deputy chief of staff for Democratic Senator Harry Reid when Reid was the Democratic leader in the Senate. We recorded our interview yesterday.

So we've established that needing a supermajority to pass legislation was not what the founders wanted. They wanted simple majorities. You've talked about how the filibuster was initiated in the mid-19th century and the ways it was used to enable slave owners and to keep the institution of slavery. But you write that the only time the filibuster was used during Jim Crow with any consistency was to block any form of civil rights legislation and that this happened through the 1960s.

So give us an example of that - like, of the systematic use of the filibuster to block civil rights legislation.

JENTLESON: So what Southern senators faced starting in the 1920s was majority support for civil rights bills. These were rudimentary civil rights bills. These were anti-lynching bills and anti-poll tax bills, but they were civil rights bills nonetheless. These bills started passing the House with big majorities. They had presidents of both parties in the White House ready to sign them, and they actually had enormous public support. Gallup polled the public on anti-lynching bills in 1937 and found 70% of Americans supporting federal anti-lynching laws. And they polled anti-poll tax laws in the 1940s and found 60% support. So Southern senators started to block these bills in the name of minority rights, deploying the supermajority threshold and talking about it as a vaunted, lofty defense of minority rights, just as John Calhoun had done in his time.

This continued to be the case against every single civil rights bill that came before Congress from the time that Reconstruction ended all the way up until 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson finally was able to rally a supermajority of senators of both parties together to break a Southern filibuster against civil rights. But from the 87 years between when Reconstruction ended until 1964, the only category of legislation against which the filibuster was deployed to actively stop bills in their tracks was civil rights legislation.

GROSS: So the senator who was blocking the civil rights bill and leading the filibuster was Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. He had been LBJ's mentor, but LBJ had become more progressive in his views and turned against Russell and defeated Russell's filibuster. Richard Russell, that Southern senator who led the filibuster against the civil rights bill, that is the Russell that the Russell Office Building, where many senators have their office, is named after. I'm wondering if there's any kind of movement to change the name of that building.

JENTLESON: I wish there was. There have been murmurings, but so far, not a real organized movement. And I just want to underscore how disturbing this is. And I think it points to the sort of self-mythologizing that the Senate tends to engage in. Richard Russell was, in his time, by far the most powerful senator of either party. He was never a formal leader of either party, but he wielded more power than the leaders of either party. But he was an avowed white supremacist. And I'm - this was not subtext. This was clear statements that he himself made. At one point, he declared that any Southern white man worth a pinch of salt would give his all to defend white supremacy.

And as you mentioned, Russell was the leading filibuster of civil rights bills. He came to the Senate in the 1930s and led more filibusters than any other senator against civil rights in those 30 years. Today, thousands of Senate staffers go to work every day in a building named after this avowed white supremacist. When Senator John McCain passed away, there was a brief movement to rename the building after him that was quashed by Mitch McConnell. Today, there are murmurings of trying to change the name, but so far, no organized movement.

GROSS: So you say McConnell did not want the Russell Building named after John McCain. Why not? And how did he block that?

JENTLESON: So this is interesting and something I get into in the book. There was actually a decades-long rivalry between Senator McCain and Senator McConnell that revolved around McCain's advocacy for campaign finance reform and his passage of the famous McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act. McConnell was the Senate's leading opponent of campaign finance reform. He was the leading advocate for loosening restrictions and getting more money into politics. This is actually sort of how he made his bones when he first got to the Senate. He learned to filibuster in the 1980s by blocking campaign finance reform efforts.

And so there was one episode in the '90s where McConnell was so angry at McCain for his advocacy for campaign finance reform, where he led an unprecedented three-hour verbal assault against Senator McCain on the Senate floor. It was really something to behold. So they were not exactly the best of friends. I can't say definitively that that contributed. But, you know, McCain was a maverick, and he ended his career by defying McConnell and refusing to vote for Republicans' effort to repeal Obamacare. McCain cast the decisive vote that defeated that effort. It was a dramatic moment on the floor. He came to the floor, looked McConnell straight in the face and turned his thumb down, signaling a no vote, and walked away.

So they were not - this - and that was just a few weeks before McCain passed away. So suffice to say, they had never been the closest of friends, and they were certainly not on great terms when Senator McCain passed. I can't say definitively that that's the reason. But when there started to be an effort and a movement to rename the Russell Building after McCain, McConnell quickly let it known that it would never see the light of day in the Senate that he controlled, once again deploying the power of the majority leader to make clear that this bill would never come to the floor.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Jentleson, author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Adam Jentleson, author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." It's about how the Senate became as polarized as it is today and how the filibuster became a tool enabling the minority to systematically block the majority. He writes about the filibuster's roots in Southern senators upholding slavery and later in blocking civil rights legislation.

Who is the innovator of making that supermajority routine, enabling the minority to block any legislation it wants to?

JENTLESON: More than any other single senator, Mitch McConnell is responsible for the overuse of the filibuster. This is simply a fact. It was - it came into frequent use. And I don't want to downplay the role the Democrats played here. From the 1970s through the 1980s and into the 2000s, leaders of both parties began to use it more frequently. Senator Harry Reid, my former boss, used it under President George W. Bush a good deal.

But when Mitch McConnell became leader - the first minority leader in 2007, he began using the filibuster at a rate that had never been seen before in the Senate. And his key innovation was to use it not just with the intent of making it harder to pass individual bills but of deploying it as a weapon of mass obstruction against every single thing that moved in the Senate, which had the net effect of grinding the gears of the Senate to a halt and creating what appeared to any casual observer to be a completely gridlocked Washington.

GROSS: The Senate is now going to be split 50-50, with Kamala Harris as vice president having the ability to break the tie if there is a tie. So it's not enough to pass the threshold of filibuster and cloture. So what does this narrow margin get the Democrats in the Senate?

JENTLESON: Well, a majority, even the slimmest majority possible, gives you a ton of power in the Senate. It puts you in control of all the committees. It doesn't matter if your majority is one seat or even hinging on the vice presidency or if it's 10 seats. You have control of all of the committees.

It also makes Chuck Schumer the majority leader and Mitch McConnell the minority leader, and that means that Schumer, not McConnell, can determine what bills come to the floor. That is a huge difference. We saw how important this is just last month with the fight over direct payment checks, where the bill that passed the House was denied a vote because Mitch McConnell simply refused to bring it up for a vote in the Senate. So even having the ability to determine what bills come to the floor can be very important in the Senate. It means that whether they pass or fail, all or most of President Biden's major legislative agenda items will get a vote in the Senate.

GROSS: Are we about to see a strategic war between Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer?

JENTLESON: I think we are. And I think that what happens is going to have massive and very important ramifications not just for the Senate as an institution but for the everyday lives of American people. My personal view is the inevitable outcome of this war is going to be some kind of Senate reform that lowers the threshold from 60 votes to somewhere closer to a majority. I would prefer that it go all the way to a majority, but we'll see what happens.

I think that the simple fact of the matter is that even if President Biden tries to secure bipartisan cooperation with Republicans, it's simply not going to be forthcoming to the extent that he needs it to be. And that is going to force the question of whether Democrats simply want to give up on their agenda or reform the Senate so that they can pass bills on a majority basis.

GROSS: Every Senate has the right to make its own rules. But what does it take to pass those rules? Do you need a supermajority?

JENTLESON: You need a simple - you only need a simple majority to change the rules. This has evolved as a precedent starting in the 1970s but has really been set in concrete first by Reid when he deployed the nuclear option to change the rules in 2013 and then was affirmed by McConnell when he used a simple majority to change the rules in 2017 to confirm Justice Gorsuch. So that means that while reform is complicated, it only takes 51 votes to do it. And I think Democrats might find themselves quickly facing the choice of reforming the rules or getting nothing done.

GROSS: What's held the rules back from being reformed in the past is that when Democrats are in the majority and they have a chance to reform the rules - and ditto for Republicans. When they're in the majority and have the chance to reform their rules, they're afraid of how it will be used against them the next time they're in the minority.

JENTLESON: Yes, and that's a legitimate fear. And I don't want to downplay it. But the simple fact of the matter is that the ability of the minority to block the majority from taking action benefits conservatives far more than it benefits liberals. I think this has misaligned sort of the gyroscope of American politics. I think our system works well when progressive politicians pass legislation that helps improve people's lives, that expands the social safety net and that fixes some of the fundamental imbalances of our democracy. And then, you know, if Republicans take back power, they can trim away at those excesses - maybe, you know, cut spending, et cetera, et cetera.

What we have now is a system where nothing gets done. We have major crises that we are facing from climate change to income inequality to democracy reform. And the supermajority threshold simply allows a minority of conservatives to block anything from getting done, and I think that's an unsustainable dynamic for a democracy.

GROSS: You've written that you think whatever Biden accomplishes is basically going to have to be through executive action. Do you think that's true even if the threshold to override a filibuster is lowered from three-fifths to something else?

JENTLESON: I think lowering the threshold opens up a world of possibilities. I think that it's still going to be difficult. You know, getting to 50, 51 votes requires securing the votes of Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who tend to be pretty conservative. But this was Madison's whole point. This is why he set the threshold at a majority. It's hard to secure majorities for legislation in the House and the Senate and get a president to sign them. It's a big challenge. It doesn't lead to untrammeled majority rule, but it does lead to things getting done. And I think the Senate will be better off as an institution, and America in general will be better off if the Senate can once again pass thoughtful policy solutions to the challenges America faces.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Jentleson, author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Adam Jentleson, author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of The Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." It's about how the Senate became as polarized as it is today and how the filibuster became a tool enabling the minority to systematically block the majority. Jentleson worked for Harry Reid when Harry Reid was the Democratic leader of the Senate. And the positions he held with Harry Reid were communications director and deputy chief of staff.

What reforms would you like to see in the Senate to make it less polarized and to end some of the gridlock?

JENTLESON: I think reforms need to be very clear-eyed about the larger context in which the Senate is operating. We're not going to fix our polarized country with Senate reform. We're not going to fix forces of negative partisanship. What we have to do is be very focused on restoring the Senate's fundamental purpose, which is not the filibuster. It is not any of the rules that have cropped up over the last 200 years. The Senate's fundamental purpose is to produce thoughtful policy solutions to the challenges America faces today. I think that begins with restoring the ability of bills to pass on a majority threshold. And I think all other reforms stem from there.

You have to make it possible to pass things again, period. I hope and believe that once the gears start turning, this will facilitate bipartisanship. One thing that's interesting is that, for all of the decades when the Senate operated as a majority rule body, there was plenty of bipartisanship. The other side might fight as hard as it could to stop a piece of legislation. But once it became clear that the legislation had the votes it needed to pass, you would often see the side that opposed it jump on board and start participating in the process. And that's what's healthy about it. We need to see bills moving.

Hopefully, that will produce bipartisanship. Hopefully, Senate Republicans will decide that working with Democrats is better than simply sitting on the sidelines. But even if they don't, we will actually be passing bills again. And I think that is a healthy thing for America, especially given the scope of the challenges that we face right now.

GROSS: You're a Democrat. And you're saying that now that Democrats will be in power in the Senate. Would you be saying that if Mitch McConnell was the majority leader?

JENTLESON: Well, I would. And I can say that because I started writing this book when Mitch McConnell was the majority leader. And so I think that there's no question that Republicans will use this power when they regain the Senate majority. But I think that, on balance, progressives and liberals benefit far more than conservatives by the ability to pass legislation. This is - stems from the fundamental fact that conservatives are the party that wants to stop things. They're the party, in William F. Buckley's famous phrase, that stands athwart history, yelling, stop.

They achieve much of what they want to achieve by stopping things. They can roll back regulation without passing bills on the floor. They can do this through executive actions and other means. Fundamentally, the way that progressives advance their agenda is by passing big legislation. None of the other tools available to them, whether it's executive actions or anything of that nature, come anywhere close to the scope and power of passing legislation. It's simply necessary for our government to function to be able to pass legislation. I would also note that most of the damage that Trump did during his time in power - for the first two years of his administration, Republicans had a trifecta control in Washington. They controlled the White House, House and Senate.

They sought to repeal Obamacare on a simple majority vote. They used an end run around the filibuster to do this. They were unable to secure a majority vote to repeal Obamacare. It is much harder to pass things, even at a majority threshold, than people generally assume. I think you simply have to restore the Senate's power to pass things. You can hope that bipartisanship stems from that. I certainly hope that it will. But we simply need to have a functioning Senate and a functioning federal government that can meet the challenges we face with thoughtful solutions again.

GROSS: So Joe Biden was a senator for years before becoming vice president. Mitch McConnell has been in the Senate a long time. How did they get along before the Obama presidency, before Biden became vice president?

JENTLESON: I would describe their relationship as professional, but not much more than that. I mean, Senator McConnell is sort of a business-only type senator. He doesn't have a lot of friends even within his own conference. I'm not saying that to be mean. It's simply a statement of fact. And so they had a cordial, businesslike and professional relationship. But I wouldn't describe it as particularly warm beyond that.

GROSS: One of the things that President Trump was able to do is roll back a lot of regulations, including in the Environmental Protection Agency, through executive action. When Biden becomes president, can he reinstate regulations through executive action? Or can you only roll them back through executive action?

JENTLESON: He can reinstate some of them. There are important things you can do through executive action on environmental regulations. You can also roll back the rollbacks in a lot of cases. So I think it's fair to say that he can do enough to sort of get you back to even, you know, back to about where we were before President Trump. And then there are some things he can do to go a little bit further. I know that student loan debt forgiveness is a big topic of conversation. That's one example on that. There are things he can do on the environment and climate front. But the simple matter is that there's no substitute for passing legislation. It is simply the most powerful tool the federal government has. And if you are unable to use that tool, then President Biden is going to leave office with most of his agenda unfulfilled.

And then there are structural reforms, things like D.C. statehood, that I think are essential - automatic voter registration, restoring many of the imbalances that have led to the chaos and feeling of unrepresentation (ph) that have really crippled our democracy recently. Things like D.C. statehood, civil rights reforms, automatic voter registration - these can only be done by passing legislation. So it is really essential that this tool be restored.

GROSS: If Washington, D.C. became a state, it would have two senators representing it in Congress. That has the potential of being somewhat of a game changer. What would it take for D.C. to get recognized as a state?

JENTLESON: Well, I think it will pass the House. And so it's simply a matter of securing 51 votes in the Senate if the Senate chooses to lower the threshold. It will never get 60 votes. I think that's simply a fantasy. So to make D.C. a state, you're going to have to reform the filibuster and lower the threshold to a simple majority. And let's be clear - D.C. deserves to be a state. It's made clear it wants to be a state. I think with the - its inability to quickly send in the National Guard last week to meet the violence, we've seen many of the reasons why this district deserves to be a state and have the power that comes with that.

It would be the same size as Wyoming and about the same size as several other states. It simply deserves that power. This goes back to the basic principle of taxation without representation, right? It is governed by federal laws, and it deserves the right and the representation to help shape those laws.

GROSS: What power would D.C. have had that it didn't have during the insurrection?

JENTLESON: Governors are able to call up the National Guard, and D.C.'s mayor was unable to do that. It had to rely on Maryland and Virginia to send help. And I think that the response could have been quicker if D.C. had been a state and had more power over self-government.

GROSS: Finally, President Trump will be out of office in days. No matter what route he takes to leave office, certainly by Inauguration Day, he will leave office. How much Trumpism do you think will be left in the Republican Party when Trump is no longer president?

JENTLESON: I have a pretty bearish view on this. I unfortunately think that Trumpism is here to stay and reflects the modern Republican Party. I think that Republican voters have stuck with Trump north of 80, 90% through all the outrages of the past four years. I think that barring some major action to expel his enablers from this party, to expel those who enabled the violence in the Capitol last week, a clear demonstration that these types of people are not welcome in their party - unfortunately, I think we're going to see the Republican Party continue to move in a Trumpist direction.

GROSS: Adam Jentleson, I want to thank you so much for talking with us today. I really learned a lot from your book.

JENTLESON: It was so great to be here, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Adam Jentleson is the author of the new book "Kill Switch: The Rise Of the Modern Senate And The Crippling Of American Democracy." We recorded our interview yesterday morning.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, historian Kerri Greenidge, author of "Black Radical," will tell the story of William Morris (ph) Trotter, an African American newspaper editor who led mass protests for civil rights in the 20th century. Trotter gained a national following and challenged leaders like Booker T. Washington, who took a more cautious approach to Black empowerment. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "WELL, YOU NEEDN'T") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.