Thursday, March 7, 2013

Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah! For the Old-School Filibuster.

I have to say, I enjoyed Rand Paul's gabfest yesterday again John Brennan's nomination for CIA director. It was interesting to see one take on what a live filibuster might look like these days, although it was a particularly gentle filibuster (more below).

Let's start with things I liked about it:

  • It was a genuine display of intensity on a national policy issue. Whether you agree with Paul or not on the can-our-government-bomb-us-from-the-sky issue, it does seem that he is sincerely worked up about it. Filibustering allows for these displays of intensity in a way that roll call votes cannot. And filibustering allows legislators to stand up for their own priorities even if their party leaders are not eager to have open conversations about the execution of the war on terror.
  • It was an interesting display of hostage-taking. Paul did not really seek to kill Brennan's nomination; he (temporarily) took the nomination hostage to demand a vote on a resolution against domestic drone strikes.
  • It displayed the strengths and weaknesses of an attrition-based strategy, i.e. fighting filibusters by letting the obstructionists talk themselves out. On one hand, Paul only made it 13 hours despite a) being the 14th-youngest senator at 50 years old and b)  having lots of help from other senators. He quit because he had to relieve himself, and because it was late and everyone wanted to go home to bed. So it is possible to wear senators out.
On the other hand....
  • This was a rare set of circumstances. Since the Senate is not really a law-making body these days, there is no major legislation pending. There is a general issue agenda of budgets, guns, and immigration, but nothing ready for the floor. Furthermore, with the "snowquestration" blizzard looming, the Senate was done legislating by the time the filibuster began. All the Democrats wanted to do yesterday afternoon was file for cloture on the Brennan nomination, which they did at the end of the filibuster. Paul's "filibuster" was more like a "special orders" speech in the U.S. House than a genuine stop-everything filibuster. 
  • Nor did Paul and his supporters make the filibuster onerous for other senators. They could have forced senators to show up for live quorum calls (i.e. the kind where you actually have to be there) but did not. So, not only was Paul's filibuster easy on the chamber, it was easy on the other senators as well. 
  • So this does not mean that nothing is wrong with the Senate. Unless senators adopt some major changes, it will still be hard for the majority of the Senate to outlast a single senator or team of senators.

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