2013-03-15 / View From Here

The View From Here . . .


Once in a while a political event cuts through the usual fog of charge and countercharge. It may well be that Rand Paul’s dramatic filibuster on the floor of the United States Senate last week was one of those events.

The filibuster rule is based on the Senate tradition of allowing virtually unlimited debate on an issue. In days of yore, Senators used to speak endlessly to block legislation they deemed bad and in a famous scene in the 1939 movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart’s character speaks for 24 hours to block an appropriations bill and prove his innocence of graft. However, in recent years the filibuster has been basically been used as a procedural requirement to insure that most nonbudgetary legislation clears the Senate with a three-fifths majority. Actual filibusters have been rare.

Enter Mr. Paul. After the filibuster rule was tightened a bit to require actual filibusters in some instances, Mr. Paul decided to engage in one. His ostensible target was the nomination of CIA nominee John Brennan, but he was more interested in policy relating to the use of drone aircraft on American soil. During the hearings on Mr. Brennan, the Obama Administration had supplied rather vague answers on drones that focused on its intentions rather than the legal limits of its authority.

For thirteen hours, Senator Paul held the floor, essentially making one very cogent point. American liberty and constitutional rights would be compromised if drones could be targeted at American citizens on American soil not presently engaged in active terrorist activity. Mr. Paul gave the example of an American sitting in a cafe in the United States who might or might not be plotting an attack. Mr. Paul asserted that giving the President the right to order this individual’s death without any judicial proceeding was a denial of the right to due process of law and trial by jury. The President would in effect become judge, jury and executioner. The senator was careful to exempt from his analysis the situation where the targeted individual was presently engaging in physical terrorist activities.

There was a certain human drama to the filibuster, since a filibustering senator is required to stand throughout, is not permitted to leave the floor for any reason and is not supposed to drink anything but water (in fact, some other food and drink was smuggled in). Senator Paul promised to “speak until I can no longer” speak and he pretty much did. He was aided by a few other senators (including one Democrat) who asked him long “questions” about his position, which allowed him to rest a bit, but it was still a grueling stretch for the Senator.

While almost no one saw all of Senator Paul’s speech, a huge number of people must have tuned in occasionally on C-SPAN. At one point he was the number one trending item on Twitter and gained 3,500 new followers per hour.

In the end, although Mr. Brennan was easily confirmed, Mr. Paul received some vindication in a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder that basically agreed with his position. He also received some unexpected criticism from Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who spent the night of the filibuster at a dinner with President Obama that was largely upstaged by Mr. Paul.

This is not to say that there are no counterarguments to Mr. Paul’s position. But the bottom line is that Mr. Paul’s long speech represented a dramatic and welcome moment where one man stood up for what he believed.

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