The cause that drove Sen. Paul, R-Ky., to hold the Senate floor for more than 12 hours might be the stuff of an overactive and paranoid imagination, but the demonstration of what constitutes a filibuster is the real story here.
In times past, senators wishing to filibuster would have to remain standing and speaking in order to halt the regular business of the Senate. Now filibusters have become less reality-based and more theoretical. If a senator wishes to apply the brakes to distasteful legislation or presidential nominees today, all he or she has to do is declare the intent to filibuster. By the rules, saying instead of doing means the objection must be overridden by the votes of 60 or more senators.
This method cuts out all the hard work of a senator preventing the passage of a bill by actually standing and talking for hours on end. It’s so inconvenient for the senators, don’t you know. All that actual filibustering might cut into the time spent raising money for the next campaign.
These faux filibusters have become more frequent in recent years. One recent analysis found that close to 70 percent of all bills in a recent session of Congress were subject to this and other stalling techniques.
Which brings us back to Sen. Paul. Late Wednesday morning, he told his Senate colleagues, “I’m going to speak as long as I can to draw attention to something I find very disturbing.” For Paul, that turned out to be almost 13 hours straight.
The Paul stall kept the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA temporarily on ice. However, the senator’s real beef was on another topic: The potential for a presidential administration to launch a drone strike on a U.S. citizen.
“No American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found guilty of a crime by a court,” Paul said. “How can you kill someone without going to a judge, or a jury?”
It’s a question that’s even relevant by only the thinnest of lines of reasoning. Such a targeted drone strike has never occurred, and the White House says it has no plans to carry one out. However, in a letter to Sen. Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder held out the possibility of “extraordinary circumstance” akin to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 that might make such a strike at least plausible.
In dismissing Paul’s worries, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Thursday, “Calm down, senator,” adding, “The U.S. government cannot randomly target U.S. citizens.”
On Thursday, it was back to business as usual. Brennan’s nomination was stalled by a faux filibuster until a 63-34 vote moved the nomination forward. It’s a shame the Senate returned to form so recently after the example of a senator who put his mouth and feet where his convictions are.