When is a filibuster an effective tool to raise public awareness? And when is it the anti-democratic tool of the minority to stop legislation it opposes?
A couple weeks ago, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky took to the Senate floor to speak against the nomination of John Brennan as head of the CIA because Paul opposed the Obama Administration’s drone policy, largely crafted by Brennan. Previous to Paul’s filibuster, Gallup found that only 26% of Americans opposed using drones to kill Americans abroad. After, that number swung dramatically, doubling to 52% opposed.
With the shift in public opinion to bolster him, Paul called the filibuster a victory (though some question whether he overstates his success). The same Gallup poll also noted that less than half of Americans are following the news about drones “closely.”
In other words, we’re busy people, and the Obama Administration’s drone policy is just one more thing to follow. Hence, the success of Rand’s filibuster. It raised an otherwise marginal issue to the level of our attention.
Could it work again?
Senators Michael Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, and, of course, Paul, have indicated that while they are not going to the Senate floor to talk about the Second Amendment in another speaking filibuster, they will, in a “silent” filibuster require a sixty-vote majority to move any gun regulation to a vote. In a statement this morning, Lee warned that any attempts by the administration to push gun controls through Congress will see another speaking filibuster from the Senate floor.
[T]his debate is about more than magazine clips and pistol grips. It is about the purpose of the Second Amendment and why our constitutionally protected right to self-defense is an essential part of self-government. Any legislation that would restrict our basic right to self-defense deserves robust and open debate. Requiring a 60-vote threshold helps ensure that we have that debate rather than skipping directly to the back room deals, horse trading, and business-as-usual politics that typifies the way Congress passes legislation today.
“Filibusters of efforts to move forward with common-sense measures to reduce gun violence would be unfortunate. We have worked with Congress, with the Senate, to try to advance the elements of the president’s plan that require legislative action and these again are common-sense measures.”
Calling it ‘unfortunate’ is , as Kyle Becker put it, akin to “how a guy who owes a loan shark ten grand falls down a flight of stairs and that is ‘unfortunate.’”
While I agree with Lee that the debate on the Second Amendment needs to happen prior to the passage of any gun control bill, I don’t know that a procedural filibuster, by itself, pushes the debate onto the public sphere the way he seems to want. Speaking filibusters, like Paul’s earlier this month, occur with enough infrequency that their impact is more significant.
On the other hand, procedural filibusters happen frequently enough that many from both parties have considered doing away with them. It’s a procedural move that allows a minority to block majority action without a three-fifths majority override. In contrast to the speaking filibuster that lays out the arguments dramatically for the world to watch and consider, the silent filibuster might do more damage than good because it appears to be anti-democratic and does not provide any argument for the public to consider.
In any respect, the debate on how we regulate guns is important and should occur. The President’s bully pulpit wields a disproportionate impact on public opinion, and a speaking filibuster as a means of communicating to the American public may be just what is necessary to return the Senate to its place as an effect check on the power of the presidency.
- Rand Paul & Co. Plan Their Next Filibuster – This Time It’s Gun Control (thetruthaboutguns.com)
- Rand Paul and Ted Cruz threaten filibuster on guns (nraila.org)