Today each chamber begins the 114th Congress with a set of institutionalized rituals. The U.S. House will begin with a quorum call, election of the speaker (gambling tip: my money’s on the kid from Ohio), adoption of House rules  and a mass swearing-in of members. From time to time, this process offers drama over the election of the speaker, the manipulation of the rules and even the selection of House chaplains or printers.

The primary formal activity of the U.S. Senate is the swearing in of newly elected senators by the president of the Senate. With its leaders chosen off the floor and its rules continuing automatically, and Orrin Hatch presumably “elected” president pro tempore without a roll call vote, it is unlikely there will be much contention on the Senate floor today. But  in honor of today’s proceedings, I thought I would retell the story of an opening day fight from 1947, which was also an opening skirmish in the post-World War II civil rights era: the fight over Theodore “The Man” Bilbo, senator from Mississippi.

At the opening of the 80th Congress, the threat of cloture reform ended a filibuster intended to help  Bilbo (D-Miss.) keep his Senate seat. From 1935 to 1946, Bilbo was one of the loudest and most virulent opponents of civil rights legislation. During his 1946 primary campaign, he called for “every red-blooded white man to use any means to keep the [racial epithet] away from the polls. If you don’t understand what that means you are just plain dumb.” Subsequently, Mississippians and citizens across the country called on the Senate to invalidate Bilbo’s primary election results. Days before the inauguration of the 80th Congress, the Justice Department announced that it had  been investigating Bilbo’s questionable relationships with defense contractors for months.

Republicans were in a delicate position. The 1946 election results gave them a majority in the Senate, but only after the newly elected senators were sworn in. Swearing-in occurs alphabetically, so “Bilbo” came up early in the process. And if they allowed Bilbo to take the oath and then tried to expel him, that would require a hard-to-achieve two-thirds majority. Their solution was to try to skip over Bilbo, swear in everyone else  and then vote to exclude Bilbo from being sworn  as a senator, which requires a simple majority vote.

Southern senators began to filibuster the effort to skip over and then exclude Bilbo. The Republicans did not believe that they could use the cloture process, however, because the rule then in effect only applied to a “pending measure,” and Bilbo was (as they interpreted the rule) neither pending nor a measure.

After a few hours of Southern filibustering, the Republicans’ de facto leader, Robert Taft (R-Ohio),  called for a recess until noon of the next day (Saturday). Then, in cold anger, he said he would wait until Monday. And then, “if those who are now blocking the organization of the Senate have not changed their minds, I propose to keep the Senate in session to break this. Use of the filibuster on such an occasion for such an inconsequential purpose is so unjustifiable that if you do not change your minds you are going to face a complete change of the rules of this Senate, face a change that will bring about cloture on any subject. We cannot begin a session facing the threat of a filibuster on every measure we may bring up.”

Theodore Bilbo, Senator from Mississippi. (Library of Congress)

The Southern Democrats apparently considered this threat credible since the Republican conference had authorized Taft to craft its anti-Bilbo strategy. They soon capitulated: Bilbo was excluded but retained his salary. The New York Times attributed this outcome to “the apparent willingness of the Republicans, with some Democratic support, to fight a filibuster to the bitter end, and possibly to amend the Senate rules so that cloture could thereafter be imposed by simple majority vote.” Southerners had been prepared to filibuster “indefinitely” — one senator threatened to read aloud the entire Senate committee report on Bilbo’s election — but  once Taft threatened to reform Senate rules, the Southerners yielded.

Adapted from “Filibustering: a Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate,” 2010.