Yesterday was one of those rare days when you could feel good about something that happened in Congress: Rand Paul stood up just before noon, started talking about drones, and didn’t stop for 13 hours. The point of Paul's filibuster was to delay the appointment of drone-policy architect John Brennan as the new CIA director and to draw attention to Attorney General Eric Holder's refusal to categorically rule out drone strikes on US soil, in response to a letter Paul wrote. There was no real hope of stopping Brennan's appointment in the beginning, but as the afternoon turned into night, some mainstream Republicans voiced their support (like Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), and there's now a chance that Brennan won't get confirmed so easily, or at least not until Obama comes out and says, "We're not going to use drones to kill Americans in America. That's ridiculous." (See update below.*) The impressive thing about Paul's effort, though, was that someone spoke in public passionately and at length about something he believes in, which is a pretty rare sight in politics.
There are tons of filibusters in the Senate, but very few are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style oratorical workouts. Thanks to rule changes adopted back in the 60s, it’s enough for a senator to announce that he or she is filibustering a bill, and the chamber will move along to something else unless 60 senators vote to overrule. A few months ago, there were various reforms proposed to change this obstructionist state of affairs—one idea, from Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, would have forced filibuster-happy legislators to do exactly what Paul did yesterday and literally stand up for what they believe in. But those efforts fell apart, since apparently senators are big fans of being able to quietly stall the progress of bills they don’t like. (The Senate is not a great place to get things done.)
In the past few years, the only senators who’ve used their ability to speak for as long as they want on bills up for debate are mostly oddballs wanting to call attention to unpopular, doomed causes: Bernie Sanders railing against the extension of the Bush tax cuts; Chris Dodd speaking out against giving immunity to telecommunications companies who helped the government with illegal wiretaps. And unless you’re a totally hardened cynic beyond all hope of redemption, you can't help but admire those guys, including Paul, even if you don’t agree with their causes. Last night Paul did what everyone says they always want to do and actually talked about policy in a substantial way. Nitpick if you like and say his core point, that drones would soon be killing US citizens on American soil, was a dystopian fantasy, but during the 772 minutes he had the floor, he touched on a wide variety of civil liberty issues and quoted a number of writers to bolster his argument. He could have filled the time up by reading recipes, but instead he chose to put his heart and soul on the Senate floor, and, who knows, might have educated some people in the process.
I don’t want to imply Paul is made out of rainbows and sunshine—he’s a Republican with some pretty extreme views. If you lean left, you may hate him for his vocal dislike of the Civil Rights Act, his conviction that there’s some kind of Libya-to-Syria gunrunning going on, his insistence on spending cuts, and his selective embrace of the federal government when it comes to union busting. If you’re a devoted partisan, last night you might have sneered at Paul’s filibuster based on things that had nothing to do with what he was talking about.
But Paul’s ideologically consistent, a rare trait for a politician these days. He’s always opposed drones, and back in 2011, he was one of only two Republican senators to vote against a bill that let the US keep terrorists in military prison and more or less kill anyone the administration decides is supporting terrorism. The idea that he was doing this for narrow political gain or to boost his profile as a presidential candidate in 2016 is probably wrong—civil libertarians are vocal on Twitter, but they're definitely in the minority, and Obama’s drone program is broadly popular. Maybe you can say that Paul gains politically by making drones and civil liberties a topic of conversation, but in that case, isn't he doing what elected officials should do and bringing attention to issues that their constituents might not care about?
The reason to cheer Paul on has nothing to do with the content of his hours-long speech or the pros and cons of his policies, or even with whether you think he's a government-hating Republican piece of trash. He stood up, told people what he believed in and why he believed in it, and pointed them to where they could read and learn more about his issue. That’s some honesty and some determination right there, some posi-core shit you don’t see in politics outside of episodes of The West Wing. At the very least, Rand Paul talking for a while didn’t harm anyone, and that’s more than you can say for a lot of what goes on in Washington.
*Update: Eric Holder just sent Rand Paul a short letter clarifying that the president doesn't have the authority to use a drone to kill an American not "engaged in combat."
Update II: John Brennan got confirmed on Thursday afternoon in a 63 to 34 vote.
More on civil liberties and drones: