Filibustering for Freedom


Yesterday, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) led a nearly 13-hour “talking filibuster.” Senator Paul’s objective was to block President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA – John Brennan, the man who formerly directed the President’s drone warfare program. According to the Senator, he was very concerned about a letter he received from Attorney General Eric Holder that appears to essentially ask Americans to trust whoever is President to make the right decisions on drone attacks on citizens inside the nation.

Senator Paul’s stand was the first such filibuster since Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) spoke for over eight hours in 2010. While it lasted just over half as long as the longest talking filibuster in Senate history, his efforts brought out support from Twitter, Facebook, news organizations, and blogs. One supporter, libertarian activist Corie Whalen, had her account temporarily suspended because she Tweeted so much about the filibuster.

In the end, Senator Paul’s filibuster is unlikely to stop the nomination of Brennan for the CIA’s top spot, but its effects are felt in other ways:

First, it made the issue of President Obama’s hypocrisy on civil rights the most widely reported news subject of the day.

Second, it (to paraphrase another libertarian activist) was one of the first substantive discussions about the Constitution on the Senate floor in far too long. Senator Paul talked about the Bill of Rights, how amendments built upon each other, and how the Constitution never gave the right for anyone to own slaves. The average American – in fact, most Americans, period – watching would have gained a great deal of valuable constitutional knowledge. Related, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) noted shortly before Senator Paul ended his filibuster, it is the first time in far too long that a substantive debate of any kind has happened on the Senate floor. Considering the laws and policies surrounding civil liberties, taxes, and spending that have passed Congress and been signed into law over the last few years, this is an embarrassing revelation – and Senator McConnell is part of the reason for this lack, as is any Senator who has been in office as long as he has.

Third, it brought support from many GOP Senators, who joined the filibuster – and it even garnered support from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who joined the filibuster in opposition to his party’s own President. Inside the Beltway, this is considered a significant occurrence, as is the fact that the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate backed the filibuster.

Fifth, it laid bare the dangers of an oversized government. As Senator Paul noted, this country has the best judicial system in the world, complete with lawyers if you can’t afford one and many ways to appeal a decision. Yet juries and judges sometimes get things wrong. If our system, with all of its checks and balances, cannot be perfect, why would we the people ever trust a single politician to make the right decision on something like drone warfare strikes on Americans who are not engaged in a direct action against the nation?

Sixth, it showed just how much Democrats have decided to not engage in the battle for civil liberties. Remember when the Patriot Act and wiretapping was horrific under President Bush? Then-Senator Obama was a leader when it came to holding the Bush Administration accountable. As Huffington Post notes in its top article this morning, Senator Wyden was the only Democrat to support Paul on the floor of the Senate, while 14 Republicans did so.

To be fair, while many Democrats are clearly playing partisan games, so are undoubtedly some Republicans. Were President Obama a Republican, the number of Senators filibustering would likely be lopsided the other way. Though, it is notable that many of Senator Paul’s fellow GOP filibusterers are post-Bush Senators who have been Tea Party-minded in many of their votes and other actions – including Senators Cruz, Rubio, Lee, Toomey, and Moran.

Shortly before the filibuster started, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), a lawyer, faced off with Attorney General Eric Holder over drone warfare. Senator Cruz, who was one of the first Senators to join the filibuster and was constantly on the Senate floor to assist Senator Paul through the end of the filibuster, coerced the Attorney General to admit that killing an American with drone inside the country when he or she is not doing anything imminently dangerous, is unconstitutional. AG Holder closed their discussion by noting his letter to Senator Paul used Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as examples of “imminent” attacks, not attacking Americans sitting at coffee shops. While the Attorney General was correct, the letter itself essentially asks the American people to trust the good intentions and good decision-making of a President of the United States:

In your legal judgment, does the Constitution allow a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil to be killed by a drone?” Cruz asked Holder.

“…I would not think that that would be an appropriate use of any kind of lethal force,” Holder replied.

“With all respect, Gen. Holder, my question wasn’t about appropriateness or prosecutorial discretion. It was a simple legal question,” Cruz clarified.

“This is a hypothetical, but I would not think, that in that situation, the use of a drone or lethal force would not be appropriate,” Holder replied.

“I have to tell you I find it remarkable that in that hypothetical, which is deliberately very simple, you are not able to give a simple, one-word answer: no,”

How poor is the Administration’s defense of assassinating American citizens with a broad generalization of what “appropriate” means? As Kevin Williamson highlighted at National Review:

  1. “My own conception of citizenship is such that the convenience of the authorities ought not determine questions of life and death.” Exactly. The rule of law, not the dictates of a single man or woman, should determine this, as defined by the Constitution.
  2. And: “If your government can put you to death without trial — not on the field of battle, but at breakfast — then you are not a citizen at all: You are a subject. And Americans were not born to be subjects.”

Additionally, as Williamson noted, the discussion is not about drones. It’s about “drawing up lists of Americans greenlit for assassinations, whether those assassinations are with drones, grenades, or knives.”

Throughout his filibuster, Senator Paul said all he wanted was a simple answer from the White House: “No, we won’t violate the Constitution when it comes to the rights of citizens who are not imminent threats.” This never happened, so Senator Paul continued his principled stand for the Constitution and against an oversized, too-powerful federal government.