How the Space Age brought us civil rights legislation

October 05, 1999|By Joseph R.L. Sterne

DID Republican insistence in 1962 on a place for the private sector in space communications help set the stage for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? This novel insight into the most significant social legislation of this half-century is put forward in a new book, "Mike Mansfield: Majority Leader," by Francis R. "Frank" Valeo, a Senate insider during the turbulent '60s and '70s.

Although Mr. Mansfield, at 96, is the deserving hero of the Valeo study, he does not subscribe to the author's linkage of the creation of the Comsat Corp. and civil rights. Nor does he refute it. In characteristic fashion, he merely says, "This is Frank's idea: It is on the public record, and he's entitled to it."

There is a certain plausibility in Mr. Valeo's argument.

Longtime aide

And as a longtime aide to Mr. Mansfield (he joined the senator's staff in 1959 and was closely associated with him as an adviser and speech writer until 1977), Mr. Valeo certainly was privy to much that went on behind the scenes on Capitol Hill during four presidential administrations.

This was a time when the legislative floodgates opened, when Congress gave blacks access to public accommodations, codified voting rights, enacted Medicare, increased federal aid to education and the cities and forced termination of the Vietnam War.

In all these achievements, Mr. Mansfield was a pivotal figure, not least because he was instrumental in breaking the stranglehold of the filibuster on Senate action. The low-key majority leader did so not through bluster and arm-twisting, but through deference to all his fellow senators, not least the theatrical Republican minority leader, Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois.

When Mr. Mansfield succeeded Lyndon Johnson as majority leader in 1961, the Senate was operating under Rule 22, which required a two-thirds majority to close off interminable debate. Over the years, this two-thirds barrier had allowed Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans to thwart any meaningful civil rights legislation.

Such was the situation when the Space Age, then only five years after Sputnik, arrived on Capitol Hill in the form of the proposed Communications Satellite Act of 1962.

The bill aimed to give private business a piece of the action in what was correctly perceived as an enterprise of prodigious potential. Many conservatives who opposed civil rights, openly or covertly, were enthusiastically for the COMSAT bill. Conversely, many liberals strong for civil rights were against private encroachment on what they regarded as the public domain of outer space.

Led by the very liberal Sen. Wayne Morse, opponents of the COMSAT bill decided to talk it to death. They were loath to call it a filibuster, which they had always opposed, but a filibuster it was.

Majority Leader Mansfield, relying on what Mr. Valeo calls his "awesome, monumental, fearsome, incredible patience," let the liberals' speeches go on and on. Until one day a frustrated Dirksen approached him and uttered an "unspeakable, ungentlemanly word": cloture, a closing off of debate under Rule 22.

Mr. Mansfield replied that it was every senator's right to file a petition for cloture. He had little more to say as the Senate was witness to an astounding spectacle: Mr. Morse backed by Southern Democrats to preserve their filibustering power and Republicans hell-bent to shut off debate to get the COMSAT bill passed.

Here's how Mr. Valeo describes the implications:

"By deriding the liberals, Dirksen was also ridiculing the Senate dogma of `unlimited debate.' To deride extended debate as a device to hold up the COMSAT legislation would undermine the filibuster in forestalling civil rights legislation . . .

"Morse and his cohorts were so intent on licking their wounds that they did not notice the glow on the horizon. They did not immediately make the mental link between their defeat on the COMSAT cloture and the route to victory in the coming struggle on civil rights."

A historic measure

Two years later, insisting cloture was the only route to meaningful civil rights legislation, Mr. Mansfield again lured Dirksen into camp to pass the historic 1964 measure. The Senate then went on to lower the bar to cloture to 60 votes and pass an imposing list of bills.

COMSAT and civil rights? Francis R. Valeo right now has a patent on this linkage. Though Mr. Mansfield is not buying into such a connection, history is an exercise in retrospection and reassessment and revision. Patterns sometimes emerge that are unseen by contemporaries, even by those intimately involved.

Joseph R.L. Sterne is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He was the editorial page editor of The Sun from 1972 to 1997.

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