Rep. John Lewis, (D-GA) arrives to speak at a rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 24, 2013, in Washington.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

John Lewis: Civil Rights Act ‘would not pass’ today

Updated
Congress arguably has no greater champion of American civil rights than Rep .John Lewis (D) of Georgia, whose lifelong commitment and years of sacrifice give him unrivaled stature on the issue.
 
And so it matters when Lewis declares, on the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, “If the Civil Rights Act was before the Congress today, it would not pass, it would probably never make it to the floor for a vote.”
 
It’s speculative, obviously, but does anyone seriously question whether this is true?
 
Writing in Politico yesterday, Todd Purdum accepted the premise, agreeing that the landmark measure “couldn’t pass today,” and highlighted the shifts in the political landscape.
The climate in today’s Washington is so different from the one that produced what many scholars view as the most important law of the 20th century that celebrating the law’s legacy is awkward for Republicans and Democrats alike. Neither party bears much resemblance to its past counterpart, and the bipartisanship that carried the day then is now all but dead.
That’s true, though let’s not brush past the contextual details. Bipartisanship was possible a half-century ago because there was a Republican minority in 1964 that included liberal lawmakers eager to compromise. That GOP is clearly long gone.
Congress is deadlocked on every big question, from immigration reform to a grand bargain on taxes and spending…. Now Boehner is suing President Barack Obama for failing to faithfully execute the laws, and Reid inveighs daily about the Koch brothers’ contributions to GOP causes.
That’s also true, but again, the details matter. On immigration, debt reduction, tax policy, and government spending – the specific issues Purdum highlighted – Democrats have demonstrated a willingness to compromise. Republicans have done the opposite.
 
I’m also not sure I see the parallel between Reid complaining about far-right billionaires financing a massive campaign operation and Boehner trying to stop the president from governing.
 
But the larger point – there’s a growing chasm between the governing parties – is certainly true, and this dynamic makes it easy to imagine how ugly and painful a debate over the Civil Rights Act would be if it were under consideration this year.
 
All of this, though, got me thinking. If the Civil Rights Act couldn’t pass in 2014, what else would fail?
 
We talked last week, for example, about the 70th anniversary of the G.I. Bill, which would probably struggle to pass today. Indeed, it faced far-right opposition at the time, which it overcame, but the far-right obviously has vastly more power and control today than in 1944.
 
But would Social Security be approved? Almost certainly not. Many congressional Republicans make no secret of the fact that they’re eager to privatize the system.
 
Would Medicare pass? It’s hard to see how. If Republicans set their hair on fire over the Affordable Care Act, which relies largely on private insurers to help Americans access medical care, GOP opposition to socialized insurance would be a non-starter. For that matter, like Social Security, today’s Republicans boast about their desire to privatize Medicare out of existence.
 
The Interstate Highway System would clearly struggle to gain Republican support – it’s a massive federal infrastructure investment, which the GOP steadfastly rejects – as would the Transcontinental Railroad, for the same reason.
 
Rural electrification programs probably couldn’t pass – why should Big Government help isolated communities turn their lights on? – and the very idea of Washington investing in the Marshall Plan today seems rather laughable.
 
At a certain level, I can appreciate why this little exercise is unsatisfying. The answer to every “Would Congress pass _________ today?” question is the same, given that Congress seems incapable of passing much of anything on any subject. But the point is, the radicalization of one governing party has not only paralyzed federal lawmaking, it’s created conditions that would leave most of America’s major legislative landmarks behind.
 
It’s tragic, but it’s true.
 

Civil Rights, Congress and John Lewis

John Lewis: Civil Rights Act 'would not pass' today

Updated