This Is What a Filibuster Should Be

It's easy to make fun of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul riffing on drones and other stuff for hours on the Senate floor on Wednesday, but it's also something to celebrate.

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Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is entering his fourth hour of his filibuster against John Brennan's nomination for CIA director, promising to "speak today until the president says, no, he will not kill you at a café," but the perhaps the strongest case he's making is for filibuster reform that forces senators to talk for hours in order to stop a bill. And not just because the 60-vote cloture vote filibusters we see so frequently are crippling the legislative process. Whatever you think of Paul's points, his filibuster is things that Washington usually isn't: sincere, weird, and interesting.

It's easy to make fun of Paul riffing on drones and other stuff: "I'm asking the president to publicly admit he's not in favor of summary executions." "When somebody comes up and tells me they like democracy, I say, So you like Jim Crow?" He talked at length about blog posts by The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf and The National Review's Kevin Williamson. He said his throat was dry. But we think it's important to celebrate Paul's standing filibuster. More throats should be dry in D.C.

Since the 1960s, senators have only had to threaten to filibuster. The result, as The Atlantic's James Fallows has explained extensively, is a sharp increase in filibuster abuse in recent years. What was once a rare thing is now routine, as the Current TV chart at left shows. The Senate is supposed to be a majority-rule body, but now almost everything must clear a 60-vote hurdle to move forward. A less noticed filibuster on Wednesday, for example, was the Republican filibuster of Caitlin Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. No one took to the floor to explain their opposition to Halligan in the kind of public spectacle celebrated in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

That doesn't mean the rare, for-real, talking-and-standing filibusters are always for noble causes. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond filibustered the 1957 Civil Rights Act for 24 hours. The last real filibuster was in 1992, according to the Associated Press, when then-Sen. Al D'Amato spoke for 15 hours to protect a New York typewriter company. D'Amato holds the record for the second-longest filibuster, at 23 hours and 30 mintes, which he launched to protect an earmark in a defense bill. In 1981, Sen. William Pro​xmire filibustered raising the debt ceiling for 16 hours. But at least these men are on the record defending the things they want to protect the most, whether it's local military spending or segregation. On Wednesday, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley told Talking Points Memo's Sahil Kapur he's going to try again for filibuster reform, after a weak compromise reform was adopted in January. Merkley, a Democrat, praised his Republican ally on civil liberties, saying, "Rand Paul is saying 'I have the courage of my conviction, I’m taking a stand and I want the people of America to know it.' And that’s the way it absolutely should be if you’re working to block a nominee, you should be taking that responsibility... And I applaud him for doing that."

Paul began speaking at 11:45 a.m. when he announced his intention to for-real filibuster Brennan's nomination. It didn't take long for his speech to stray from his demand for more information on the government's justification for drone strikes on Americans to all kinds of things, like that Jim Crow was passed by majority rule, so democracies aren't perfect. ("I don't think it's an idle question whether you have a democracy or a republic.") He wondered about the 2011 drone killing of Anwar al Awlaki. ("A crackpot on the Internet.") He admitted his mission was doomed. ("Ultimately I can't win. There's not enough votes.") But we got substantive discussion, too, as when Paul explained his concerns with the Obama administration's justification for targeting people -- the targeted person has to be an imminent threat, but imminent has been defined very broadly. "We become a little worried when the president says imminent doesn't have to mean immediate," Paul said. The drone war looks like "perpetual war without geographic limits."

The beauty of this was that we got past the usual 30-second talking points, pre-written and timed perfectly to fill time on cable news. We found out what Paul likes to read, or at least, what his staff reads. We found out what Paul really believes. It would be great to get an extended, ad-libbed explanation of what the rest of our elected representatives believe, for better or worse.

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