Filibuster

One of the charming eccentricities of our nation’s political traditions is the filibuster, the idea that a Senator (and only a Senator–they’re not allowed in the House) can shut down the business of the nation for as long as he (they’ve all been male up to now) can stand there and keep talking. A filibuster is at the heart of one of the greatest scenes in American film history; Jimmy Stewart filibustering in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  There’s another filibuster in one of the worst films of all time: Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack Goes to Washington.  (Not only does Senator (!) Billy Jack filibuster, he also kicks the crap out of a whole lot of bad guys in the Lincoln Memorial.  Hilariously bad film.)  One of my favorite scenes in the history of The West Wing involved a filibuster.  A Senator named Stackhouse (a terrific character actor named George Coe, stands and begins filibustering without actually explaining why, and Josh and CJ and all the rest of them figure out what he’s up to and how to help him.  Great stuff. If you want to read more about filibustering, I found this article particularly entertaining.

And yesterday, Rand Paul (with a little help from his friends) went off on drones.

His speech, alas, wasn’t any oratorical masterpiece.  It couldn’t match Huey Long in 1935 demonstrating how to make potlikker.  It couldn’t match Strom Thurmond in 1957 reading off the voting laws of all the states.  Rand Paul did toss in some gratuitous Hitler references, pointing out that Hitler was democratically elected too, then quickly backing down and insisting he wasn’t comparing anyone to Hitler.  And he didn’t come close to breaking Thurmond’s longevity record.  But it was a good effort; 13 hours, with some breaks for ‘questions’.

And I agreed with him.  I do think it’s unconscionable and specifically unconstitutional for the President of the United States to have the power to use unmanned flying drones to kill foreign nationals, on their own soil, living in nations against whom we are not at war.  Add to that the killing of American citizens abroad, and the illegality and unconstitutionality multiplies.  Congress should be involved with this issue.  The Senate should insist on due process.  The debate over drones has, to my mind, focused so far on entirely the wrong issue–on why the President has been unwilling to share with Congress Justice Department memos on the constitutionality of his drone program.  He should share those memos, obviously, but that’s a side issue.  The real issue is this: those attacks are not constitutional, period, no matter what the Justice Department’s memos say about it.

Rand Paul would seem to have a lot of his Dad in him.  And that’s altogether a good thing.  Without Ron Paul, the Republican debates leading up to our last election would have been completely unwatchable.  But Ron Paul was so far off the reservation, he introduced some ideas that no one else would ever have said.  He’d say something outrageous (like we should pull our troops out of Afghanistan, radical stuff), and half the crowd would boo.  And he didn’t ever seem to care.  I loved his independent feistiness.  And his economic ideas were nuts, and he would have made a terrible president, but this is America, and he stood up for ideas way outside the mainstream, which is a tribute to our constitution and democratic traditions.

I like eccentrics.  I think eccentrics advance the national conversation.  I shudder to think of American history without the political contributions of Horace Greeley, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene V. Debs.  They all ran for President, and they all lost, and a very good thing too, but they raised issues that nobody else was raising, and enriched our national discourse.  And in time, the issues they championed did become enacted in legislation.  And that’s good too.

Unfortunately, most filibusters, historically, were not about defending some noble principle.  Mostly, they were in the service of racism. Not always; one guy, “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, South Carolina Democrat, filibustered in 1903 for some 50 grand he said the federal government owed his state from (wait for it), the War of 1812.  That’s surely the silliest filibuster on record.  Beyond that, mostly filibusters were used to protest civil rights bills.

I mentioned Strom Thurmond’s 24 hour marathon filibuster in 1957.  But the bill he was trying to defeat back then was Lyndon Johnson’s first attempt at a Civil Rights bill.  It wasn’t much of a bill, and it passed easily precisely because it was so toothless, but it was still a Civil Rights bill, and that was enough to set off old Strom. But Theodore Bilbo (D-The Shire), a Klansman who got himself elected to the Senate from Mississippi filibustered an anti-lynching bill in 1938, to protect, as he put it, “Saxon civilization.”

Nowadays, filibusters are rare, but the threat of them is not. Cloture requires 60 votes.  (Cloture is the procedure used to cut off debate and compel a vote.)  So all that has to happen is that the minority party has to declare their intention to filibuster, and if the majority can’t muster 60 votes, the bill is defeated. Over the last four years, Senate Republicans used this tactic more frequently than ever in any Senate in US history.  That’s why there’s such a backlog of unfilled seats on the federal bench, or federal agencies without Senate-confirmed directors, and it’s also why so few of President Obama’s initiatives have so much as come to a vote.

Senator Reid has talked about changing Senate rules, to, for example, force those opposing certain bills to actually physically stand up and filibuster them.  I wish that would happen.  Filibusters are undignified, comical, an impediment to governing, in addition, of course, to being physically taxing.  That’s precisely why we need more of them.  Anyway, good for Rand Paul.  Well done sir, and I hope good came of it.

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