March 10, 2013

Dr. Paul Goes to Washington: What the Drone-a-thon Means for the Senate

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There has already been much talk of libertarian firebrand Rand Paul’s (R-KY) 13-hour talking filibuster. Rightly so. In an era where any senator can stealthily keep vacant a record number of judgeships, it is indeed remarkable to see Senator Paul filibustering the way filibustering was meant to be. It is just the sort of buzz Paul wants, of course; as a self-admitted 2016 hopeful (already?!), the junior senator from Kentucky wants his name in the papers, drones or no drones. But this barrage of publicity now shining on Senator Paul and the unmanned drones alike is already sending shockwaves throughout the Hill that has little, if anything, to do with either.

It is rare, during the Obama Era, to have John McCain (R-AZ) denounce the very same filibuster that liberal New York columnist Frank Rich called: “admirable for several reasons.” And, believe it or not, those reasons go beyond annoying John McCain.

Across the political spectrum, pundits and bigwigs alike have come to the conclusion that Paul’s old-school talk-a-thon — rather than simply demonstrating the dangerous irascibility of the Tea Party caucus — makes an affirmative case for filibuster reform by reminding us all why we have the filibuster in the first case. Republicans like McCain, who have either explicitly or implicitly partaken in a crusade against the Obama administration with a never-ending cascade of cowardly, “silent” filibusters, fear that Paul’s actions would “give ammunition” to Democrats claiming (reasonably, I might add) that the GOP is abusing Senate procedure for political ends. In short, McCain and his cadre of old bull Republicans fear Paul’s all-too-public filibuster will put pressure on the Senate to discard this antiquated delay tactic they have all been in love with since January 20th, 2009.

Au contraire, Mr. Senator.

While Paul’s filibuster, like most talking filibusters, failed to prevent a cloture vote on the issue before the Senate (the nomination of John Brennan as CIA Director), it demonstrated the doubtless utility of preserving this centuries-old safety valve of the Senate. Senator Paul, as a member of the minority, will not get his own, anti-drone pick for CIA Director appointed by Obama or confirmed by Harry Reid’s (D-NV) Senate. Yet, no matter how many dinner-invitation emails you might have received from Michelle Obama this past fall, it seems as though the question as to whether or not a President has the authority to kill Americans on American soil without due process is one deserving of an answer. Perhaps, the staunchest of Obama allies will argue, the question is so ridiculous that it does not even merit a response. Senator Paul disagreed, and when Attorney General Eric Holder clarified the Administration’s position following the half-day saga, the efficacy of the filibuster was proven once more.

The filibuster was not meant to serve as a deadly plaque to stopper the arteries of the Senate to the last capillary. It was not meant to bring the Senate to a standstill; that has been the perversion of modern politics. Hence, the filibuster is justifiably vilified by the left, just as it would be by the right if the places were reversed. What the filibuster was meant to do, however, was give the minority a voice. In the frightening hypotheticals of The Federalist Papers, James Madison envisaged a world where the rights of a minority would be steamrolled by the tyranny of a majority. The filibuster is a valid check on the temptation of power, and ought to be used as a gadfly’s clarion call to a government he believes is veering of course, not as a procedural checkpoint that is quickly morphing into an insurmountable roadblock.

A senator has a right — an obligation, even — to question executive actions he or she deems destructive. For Senator Paul, that executive action would be President Obama’s use of drones. For others, in ages past and still to come, it may be the unilateral invasion of a sovereign state, the crippling of our national social safety net or the federal expansion of civil rights. Some of these fights are now seen as unquestionably flawed, while others have been vindicated by history. What unites them, however, is the ability for dissent to be voiced despite majority support. That is what a filibuster is meant to do.

Senator Paul demonstrated this past week that one can publicly and effectively question the will of the majority, capturing the attention of a nation without necessarily stunting its forward motion. In the face of persistent, silent filibusters on Obama’s first second term nominations, Senate Democrats are reportedly debating whether or not they should reconsider filibuster reform. If that is indeed the case, Paul’s talking filibuster may very well save the practice from more severe curtailment.

By proving how the filibuster can be used as a viable, publicized and relatively drastic weapon of a “robust minority,” Paul contradicts McCain’s claim that Paul’s 13-hour sermon would provide “ammunition” for those wishing to shred the filibuster. This drone on drones, on the other hand, showed a weary Senate and nation why the filibuster, though made monstrous by present politics, still has a place in our government.

Original Author: Jacob Glick