On Wednesday, Rand Paul commandeered the Senate floor to upbraid the NSA’s domestic surveillance apparatus. He promised to filibuster for as long as his legs would allow, and ten and a half hours later, with the help of several Democratic and Republican interlocutors, he called it a night.
For this, he endured such steady derision from congressional reporters, political operatives, and other inside-gamers that you’d think nobody in American history had ever before used the Senate as a forum for politics.
It wasn’t really a filibuster after all since he wasn’t delaying passage of any legislation, and to the extent that he was delaying or crowding out legislation, it was amendments to a trade bill—not a national security bill—which ended up clearing its key obstacle Thursday, right on schedule. Paul was thus claiming the spotlight to draw attention to himself and raise funds for his presidential candidacy. At best, his “filibuster” was ineffectual self-aggrandizing. At worst, it was an act of pure cynicism.
These criticisms aren’t wrong, per se, but their objections reflect a myopic view of politics endemic among people who’ve mastered parliamentary arcana for a living.
Senators have very powerful levers at their fingertips. At key moments, they can grind the legislature to a halt without any real accountability. Through the pursuit of partisan advantage, they have turned the real filibuster into a procedural formalism, which means no major legislation, including bills Rand Paul opposes, can pass without 60 votes.
But that power is circumscribed. When there are 60 votes aligned against a senator, or when the leadership has placed his priorities high on a shelf, his power resides almost exclusively in the bully pulpit.
Occupying the Senate floor and speaking for hours on end with great fanfare is an inherently attention-seeking tactic, which unsurprisingly draws a great deal of scorn from people who understand the mechanics of what is and isn't happening, legislatively. They're right, too, that Rand Paul’s goal of ennobling Rand Paul ranked just as high on Wednesday as his goal of thwarting the surveillance state. But when you’re playing the outside game in politics, these two things turn out to be inseparable. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Just ask Bernard “Filibernie” Sanders.