As a young civil rights activist, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn was involved in protests that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act. Now, the 81-year-old Democrat from South Carolina, whose endorsement is widely credited with helping Joe Biden turn around his bid for the 2020 presidential nomination, says Congress needs to act to stop a new assault on voting.
The House has passed one sweeping bill — dubbed HR 1, or the For the People Act — that sets standards for voting and overhauls campaign finance and ethics law. But an attempt to bring it up was defeated in the Senate. Another measure — dubbed HR 4, or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — is being drafted in the House and getting attention in the Senate. Clyburn joined CQ Roll Call's Equal Time podcast last month to discuss what's at stake and how he expects it to play out. An edited transcript:
Q: We have HR 1 stalled in the Senate, but Democratic senators are in talks to craft a scaled-down version to get something done. How do you feel about that?
A: I'm hopeful that they’re doing something that makes sense. It does not make sense to me to pass a bill that does not cover all 50 states. We've made some real mistakes on that. As you know, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was fashioned to target states that had a history of voter discrimination. Now the Supreme Court sort of knocked that down nine years ago in the Shelby case. And so we have been working since then on trying to get that act reauthorized. But things have changed since then. You’ve now got 48 states that have either passed or proposed restrictive laws on voting; 48 of the 50 states have done that. Now if you only went with what was in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, you'd be looking at a history of discrimination, and a state like Pennsylvania would not be covered. Nor would Michigan be covered. So a lot of states that did not have a history of discriminating are now falling under the control of a lot of deniers, and a lot of people have bought into the Big Lie and they're proposing these laws. So we've got to have a version of the John R. Lewis Bill that goes beyond those states with a history of discriminating and talk about practices that may be put into place. ... Preclearance is what most people are looking at. Because now we’re going to have to have redistricting and the question is, will the redistricting be fair or are we going to leave it up to the states to draw the lines anywhere they want to and eliminate a district like mine?
Q: You've talked about carve-out in the filibuster for voting rights. What is your view?
A: We ought to apply reconciliation principles to voting rights and constitutional rights the way we do for the budget. ... When it comes to the constitutional issues like voting, guaranteed to Blacks by the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that should not be filibustered. That, to me, is straightforward as you can be. And so the filibuster is not in the Constitution; it's not in any law, anywhere. That's a tradition, they put it in the Senate rules, but tradition means past. We've got to look to the future.
Q: The Biden administration, it's been reported, is saying that Black and minority voters have to out-organize, vote in bigger numbers. But is that realistic? If these bills are stalled, will these voters feel betrayed?
A: Yes, I think you're right about that. But, you know, Joe Biden also said on the day that he was declared the winner of the presidency, he acknowledged the role that Blacks played in his election, and he said, ‘You've always had my back, and I will have yours.’ So he said that as well. And I think he knows how important this vote is to the Black community. I'm one who believes in accentuating the positive. ... As far as I'm concerned, we're going to get this done, and I believe we'll do it with the support of the president. I've heard people say, you know, ‘Well, what’s he doing?’ Well, you know, I'm not with him 100 percent of the time. And I don’t know if anybody knows what I'm doing. I use the microphone a little more on those issues that he does. But I guarantee you I use the telephone on these issues much more often than I use the microphone. So who knows what he's doing on the telephone? Who knows what he's doing in person? So I just believe that we're going to get to where we need to be.
Q: Do you think Democrats can hold the House and the Senate majorities without these bills?
A: No, I don’t. But I don't think we’re going to have to worry about that, because we’re going to pass these laws. I don’t know what the Senate’s gonna do. ... My suggestion is that, let's just do one bill. Wrap HR 4, HR 1, wrap them all together in one bill and pass them.
Q: The Justice Department and others are already bringing cases over the Georgia voting law. Will these cases be effective?
A: I don't care a whole lot for that being the remedy because that's a four-year tread. If these bills go into effect, or these laws go into effect, then you are in court for the next four years. What in the world? You saw what just happened, how much damage was done in the last four years? Just think about how much damage can be done in four years. We need to do this legislatively and do it now. And this stuff about, if somebody wants to challenge it in court, let them be burdened with it for four years — we shouldn’t burden ourselves for those four years.
Q: We're also talking a lot about the rules about who gets to overrule election results: legislators and other elected officials. What's the danger in that?
A: I want you to call it what it is. Use the word: nullification. It is voter nullification. ... Georgia just passed a law, it's got nullification in it, saying that these, this committee, will have the authority to overturn elections if — they don't say it this way, but this is what they are saying — if we don't like the results. That gives states power and authority over Article 1, Section 4 of the United States Constitution, which, if you were to read, and study Federalist Papers 59, there's a long discussion as of why that cannot be. And states cannot be given that authority. ... So that's why we've got to have this kind of stuff, in what we call preclearance, to make sure that no nullification law will ever be able to be put into effect. That's what this argument is all about. So I say, don't get carried away with the filibuster stuff. That's not the big deal here. The big deal here is not just restrictive laws, because they can say, there are some people saying, all we’ve got to do is out-organize. You can organize all you want to. If somebody sitting on the other end says, ‘I don't care how many of you vote, I don't care who you vote for, if I don't like the way, who has won the election, who got the most votes, I can overturn the election.’ ... This isn't about just voting, this about whether or not he will have a democracy or an autocracy. On Jan. 6, people roamed the halls of this building trying to set in place efforts to make this an autocracy. That's what they were trying to do. They were trying to nullify November, last year's elections, and put in place their autocratic leader.