Any fan of classic film or of parliamentary procedure in the U.S. Senate is most likely a fan of the James Stewart film, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.”
When members of Congress, such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, use filibusters, they are using up time and obstructing the governmental processes of Congress.
Filibusters are neither inherently good nor inherently bad. They are not all effective or futile. They are simply tools, and the effectiveness of such a tool relies on those who wield it.
The public and media seem to have two competing views of the filibuster.
In one view, the filibuster is a tool to bring up serious moral or legal concerns about a given policy. In the other view, the filibuster is just a partisan tool that detracts from the prestige of the Congress by blocking numerous nominations.
In reality, though, neither view truly encapsulates what the filibuster is and what it can do.
Members of Congress have historically used the filibuster to prevent legislation eliminating (or proposing) poll taxes to judicial nominations. Some filibusters do provoke debate, while others subtract from the function of the government.
Not every filibusterer is like James Stewart’s good-natured, well-meaning and earnest Mr. Smith, who filibustered against corrupt legislation, without rest, for a tortuous 24 hours.
Paul’s filibuster is closer to the ideal of Mr. Smith than today’s routine filibuster.
Paul filibustered the nomination of John Brennan as director of the CIA. He was mostly concerned with the Brennan’s record as the architect of the drone strike program.
Paul held the senate floor for 13 hours while debating the potential repercussions of Brennan talking the helm of the CIA.
Whether or not you agree with Paul’s politics or with his use of the filibuster, he raised an important point about America’s foreign policy: What does the rapid development of the Predator drone mean for American presence abroad?
Did the Obama administration believe that non-combatant citizens in the U.S. could possibly be legitimate targets?
Paul’s filibuster forced the media, public and government to consider if we want to make a world where even U.S. citizens must constantly be afraid to hear the whirring of a Predator drone.
These aren’t questions that should be shunted aside. They regard salient and pressing issues. Both Congresspersons and citizens should never stop questioning the acts of their government — even if they support the politicians who frame them.
Once citizens stop being vigilant, once they stop questioning the rationale for decisions, the people lose their oversight power on the government. It’s then critical to question policies and the reasoning behind them.
Paul’s filibuster really had a very limited affect on the functionality of Congress and the government. After he surrendered the floor, Attorney General Eric Holder made a statement that the president does not have authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.
The Senate then voted to end debate, and confirmed Brennan’s nomination by a vote of 63-34.
On the other hand, smaller but less constructive filibusters have occurred frequently during Barack Obama’s presidency. The Senate has often blocked his nominations, such as recently with Caitlin Halligan, who was the nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a vitally important federal court. However, filibusters of judicial nominations have become so commonplace as to no longer be worth mentioning.
These kinds of filibusters serve little purpose. The president, Congress and the rest of the nation already know that his opposing party disagrees with the perceived “judicial activism” of judges like Halligan. This is not a new issue, nor is it as pressing as the federal government’s policy concerning drones abroad or on American soil.
The only thing that senators achieve by filibustering Obama’s nominations, in the end, is reduce the efficacy of the federal government. By depriving the court system of judges and the executive departments of other positions, they weaken the government’s ability to function.
This is not the purpose of a filibuster. It does not lead to careful consideration of actions or policy without unduly constricting the government’s functionality.
Instead of being used as a tool for partisan squabbling, it should be a vehicle to further substantive debate and public awareness. As Mr. Smith might say, it should be democracy in action.
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