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The Filibuster: Anachronistic or Essential?

by Henry Flatt, published

One of the primary reasons the US Congress has such a poor approval rating is attributable, at least in part, to a failure to produce meaningful, timely legislation.

Republicans and Democrats both claim that the other side to is blame. Many Republicans in Congress claim the other side is fiscally irresponsible, while congressional Democrats argue that blatant obstructionism is taking place. What is indisputable, however, is that one of the instruments used to delay the passage of legislation, the filibuster, has been recently used at an unprecedented rate.

A recent example where the filibuster was utilized as a tactic to obstruct rather than protect against poorly thought out legislation is the evidenced by the failed gun control debate. After the Newtown, Conn., massacre on December 14, 2012, the national spotlight shifted towards gun control and regulating firearms. For the first time in four years, the country prioritized gun control above gun ownership.

The proposed legislation authored by Senator Reid would have broadened background checks and increased the penalties for interstate gun traffickers. Led by Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Republicans halted progress on the bill.

In a letter signed by Republican Senators, Rubio, Paul, and Cruz, expressed their uncompromising position. They claimed that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

“Protects citizens rights to self-defense. It speaks to history’s lesson that government cannot be in all places at all times, and history’s warning about the oppression of a government that tries. We will oppose the motion to proceed to any legislation that will serve as a vehicle for additional gun restrictions.”

The filibuster by Senators Cruz, Rubio, and Paul in this instance was done primarily as a method of obstructing legislation. Politics, by nature, is the art of compromise. Rather than debating gun control legislation on the floor of the Senate, the aforementioned senators chose to essentially halt the bill and eliminate any possibility for it to proceed.

Allowing three Senators from the same caucus to halt monumental legislation without any public discourse is not how the filibuster was intended to be used.

For decades the rules of the filibuster have remain unchanged until recently. Senate Majority Leader (D-NV) proposed an updated plan to curb filibuster use during executive branch nominees.

On the other hand, Senator Rand Paul's (R-KY) filibuster of John Brennan on March 9, 2013, had a much different effect. It served a more productive purpose.

One of the victims of United States drone strikes was Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who later became radicalized and allegedly plotted attacks against the United States in coordination with al-Qaeda. Whether or not al-Awlaki had been plotting against the United States is of small importance to Senator Paul, rather what is important is that an American citizen was executed by the United States government without due process of law.

While on the floor during his 13-hour long filibuster Paul said:

“No American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found guilty of a crime by a court. How can you kill someone without going to a judge, or a jury?”

Prolonged debate on the floor of Congress, as evidenced by Paul’s filibuster, allows for unlawful government activity to be highly scrutinized.

In contrast to Senator Paul’s filibuster demanding additional information for the use of drone strikes, the filibuster used to thwart gun control legislation did so to block a given bill from becoming law. Perhaps additional rules will be passed to alter the nature of filibusters similar to gun control toward debate elucidating unlawful drone strikes.

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