Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has his faults. Who among us can forget about the time he ranted at a representative of the Department of Energy about the inadequacy of his bathroom plumbing? (“You busybodies always want to do something to tell us how we can live our lives better. … I’ve been waiting for 20 years to talk about how bad these toilets are.”)
But you had to give him credit on Wednesday. The capital was under a snowstorm warning — and you know how wimpy people in Washington get when there’s snow. Everybody wanted to get out and get home. But Paul brought the Senate to a grinding halt by staging a filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan to be head of the CIA.
“I’m here today to speak for as long as I can hold up,” he announced. And off he went.
Paul had no particular problem with the nomination, but the debate over Brennan had brought up the question of drone strikes. The junior senator from Kentucky wanted President Barack Obama to promise not to use drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil. “At least we need to know what are the rules,” he said sometime during hour five.
I feel I speak for many Americans when I say that is a really fair question. Even people high in the Obama administration privately express concern about the idea that a president should be able to order the death of a citizen without any oversight. Shouldn’t there be a special court to sign off on these things?
“I really don’t think he’ll drop a Hellfire missile on a cafe in Houston,” said Paul, who had earlier raised just that possibility. He quoted from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” analyzed several Supreme Court cases and expressed a negative opinion about Jane Fonda. Overall, he was remarkably cogent for a person who had been talking for hours.
There were moments, of course, when Paul and his Tea Party helpers were hard to take. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas enthusiastically noted that his colleague was staging a rebellion on the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo and compared his filibuster to the letter from the fort commander, William Travis, which famously ended with “Victory or death.” This was the very same letter President George W. Bush once sent to the American golfers battling for the Ryder Cup. Once in a while, it’d be nice if someone from Texas pointed out that there are constructive ways to stand up for your principles without fatalities.
Also, the Senate was not getting anything done. But the Senate spends the vast proportion of its time not getting anything done. At least this involved staging a serious conversation.
The whole drama was most important as a mirror to the way the Senate normally does business. Look at what happened on Wednesday, people, and you can see a perfect example of why Democratic reformers wanted to change the rules and bring back the talking filibuster. Compare Paul’s behavior to that of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader. Earlier in the day, McConnell had staged a filibuster under the usual system. He blocked the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the D.C. circuit court by filing a piece of paper.
Halligan’s nomination has been moldering for two years now. Her fate is an excellent example of everything people hate about the way Washington works. She’s completely qualified, a former solicitor general for New York state. Nobody questions her character. McConnell’s opposition was partly partisan (the Republicans want to keep majority control of the powerful D.C. circuit) and partly a bow to the National Rifle Association, which has recently gotten into the business of vetting major judicial nominations. She would have been approved easily by an up-or-down vote, so McConnell created a paper filibuster. Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, needed 60 votes to proceed. End of story. End of Halligan.
Paul has, in the past, been willing to work on that side of the road himself. His attempt to stop flood insurance legislation by demanding that it include a fetal rights bill lives on in memory.
But his performance on Washington’s snow day was the real thing, a modern version of the much-cited “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It was only the second genuine filibuster since 1992. The other one was in 2010, when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., led an 8 1/2 hour rant against the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Sanders and Paul have very little in common, but they are both men with very clear and consistent political philosophies.
Then again, the one in 1992 was staged by the deeply pragmatic Al D’Amato of New York to save an upstate typewriter factory. The history of filibusters is far from ideal.
Still, after years of faux filibusters, Paul was an admirable change of pace. Exhausting yourself and irritating your colleagues for a cause is way better than stopping progress without taking the least bit of trouble.