“I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA. I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long at it takes until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast…”
Thus began one of the rarest and most spectacular parliamentary moves in Washington: Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky engaged in a “talking filibuster” earlier this month. He spoke for almost 13 hours—one of the longest in Senate history—to delay the vote on CIA director John Brennan in order to force the Obama Administration to answer whether it could use drone strikes to kill American citizens on U.S. soil accused of engaging in terrorist activities.
The simplest definition of a filibuster is any parliamentary maneuver used to delay or totally prevent a vote on some item of business in the Senate. Normally, there are no time limits for debate in the Upper House, and each Senator has the prerogative to hold the Floor for as long as he would like, so individual Members have a number of ways to stop up the Senate. The archetypal filibuster is when a Senator takes to the floor and simply starts speaking without stopping for hours, as Senator Paul did last week. Senator Paul even referenced Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland (though this was far more entertaining than when Senator Strom Thurmond read the Washington, DC, phone book aloud)
A talking filibuster like this was a throw back to the Frank Capra Academy Award-winning film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In fact, as the day went on, fellow Republicans came the Senate Chamber to support Senator Paul, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was even drawn away from his TV at home around 10:30 pm—after Paul had been on the floor for some 10 hours. At one point during the day, Illinois Senator Mark Kirk took the floor and delivered Paul an apple and a thermos of hot tea—a reference to Jimmy Stewart’s filibuster nourishment in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The hashtag #standwithrand lit up the Twitterverse as well.
Modern Senate rules have made the talking filibuster of the Chamber’s history rare. In recent years, most filibusters have been silent. According to Surviving Inside Congress:
…rule changes to make cloture easier to obtain have all but rendered the one-man filibuster, made famous by Mr. Smith, extinct. The onus was previously on Senators conducting filibusters to find creative ways to keep control of the floor, but the current rules have taken the work and the embarrassment out of the practice. It enables a minority party with more than 41 seats to effectively control much of the Senate agenda without being perceived by the public as obstructionist. Debate on legislation continues until the majority gets 60 votes for passage or until everyone wearies of the debate and gives up on the measure under consideration.
The theatrics of Senator Paul’s filibuster aside, the event is important because it illustrates that the maneuver is still useful in protecting minority rights. In recent years, the filibuster has come under fire, with opponents charging that the minority party is simply using it to obstruct for the sake of obstruction and party politics. Senator Paul’s filibuster proves that is not necessarily the case. He had been troubled at the Obama Administration’s answer to a question on whether it could use unmanned drones to kill American citizens on American soil without due process when suspected of terrorist activities. He wanted a clear-cut answer—was this possible? In the end, Attorney General Eric Holder sent the Senator a short, two-sentence letter assuring him that the President could not attack American citizens without observing due process
Senator Paul’s stand illustrates the principle that the abuse of something doesn’t render its use invalid. He took a stand on principle, and the filibuster was the key to securing the answer he wanted.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.