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Congress is a mostly broken institution, but last week showed what it takes to make it work: a bunch of Tea Partiers grinding things to a halt.
Last Wednesday, Democrats planned to move to a vote on President Obama’s nominee to run the CIA, John Brennan. Brennan had overwhelming bipartisan support. But just before noon, Sen. Rand Paul took the floor and declared he would filibuster the nomination. “I will speak until I can no longer speak,” he began.
At issue wasn’t Brennan himself, but the administration’s conduct of the war on terror. President Obama used military drones to execute a U.S. citizen in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who had joined al Qaeda but had never faced trial. Obama’s drones separately killed al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also a U.S. citizen.
When a reporter asked Obama adviser Robert Gibbs how Obama justified killing an American teenager who had never been charged with a crime, Gibbs glibly answered, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father” if you don’t want to get hit by U.S. drones.
So Paul held up the Brennan nomination — and the whole U.S. Senate — in an attempt to pry from the White House something no White House ever wants to give: an admission that there are strict legal limits on the government’s authority — in this case, the authority to kill Americans who haven’t been tried.
Paul’s 13-hour filibuster was more of that “gridlock” that the media decries. He was demonstrating his good standing in the “doesn’t-play-nice-with-others caucus,” as columnist George F. Will puts it. It was typical Tea Party disobedience.
Tellingly, the first two senators to join Paul’s filibuster were freshmen Mike Lee and Ted Cruz. Both would make repeat appearances, and Cruz carried a big chunk of Paul’s 13 hours. Later, Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey joined in too. Other senators stopped by, especially after 10 p.m., but Lee, Cruz, Rubio and Toomey were Paul’s principal backups.
None of those senators shares Paul’s view that the United States should not intervene abroad except in highly extraordinary circumstances. Except Lee, they probably all differ with Paul on how to battle terrorism. But when they saw Paul on the floor, standing up to the White House and messing up the plans of both parties, these other Tea Party freshman followed.
Paul had jumped onto the ice, took off his gloves and started throwing punches. His line mates followed him over the boards.
It’s not just that these are all right-leaning first-term senators. The common bond is deeper, and it illuminates Paul’s filibuster: Paul, Lee, Cruz, Rubio and Toomey all came to the Senate by running against and defeating the GOP establishment.
Paul, Cruz and Rubio all ran in open-seat Senate primaries against candidates hand-picked by GOP leadership and heavily favored early on. Toomey and Lee both challenged sitting GOP incumbents in 2010 in order to win their seats.
These aren’t men who wait their turn. And they don’t ask permission of party leadership. If they did, they wouldn’t be senators. Their experience has, it seems, made a permanent impression on them.
Rand Paul didn’t ask Mitch McConnell, “When do we get to talk about the flying death robots?” He also didn’t wait for public opinion to shift (most Americans in recent polls support drone strikes on terrorist suspects of all stripes). Paul stuck his neck out, disrupted the Senate and calmly made a moral argument, well grounded in the Constitution and conservative principles, but also appealing to liberal sensibilities.
This was actual leadership. And it accomplished something: It launched a public debate on a serious topic, and even forced the White House to finally concede some limits on its ability to kill Americans with drones. Also, the filibuster moved the bounds of permissible dissent. It’s now OK for conservatives to question war powers.
Overseeing and constraining the power of the executive is one of Congress’s fundamental duties. Publicly debating key areas of policy is the supposed historic role of the Senate. Last week, thanks to Rand Paul, the Senate did its job.
There’s a lesson here: A functional Senate doesn’t require a bunch of moderates going along with party leadership and embracing bipartisanship. It requires something like the opposite. For the Senate to do its job, it took a senator with strong views stepping out of line, grinding Senate business to a halt and drawing clear lines.
Media scolds often point to House Republicans as a sign that the Tea Party and its anti-establishment mentality have broken Washington. Last week, through, we saw how Tea Partyism is sometimes the only way Washington ever works.
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