Kentucky Senator and Tea Party darling Rand Paul deserves credit for one thing in his windy 13-hour one-man filibuster against the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director. He publicly demonstrated that the deal that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cut last January with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to go easy on overhauling the filibuster rules was worthless. The deal left in place the necessity to get a supermajority of 60 votes to get a bill passed. Reinforcing the GOP's dwindling arsenal of Senate weapons by keeping the filibuster virtually intact has been a prime reason for much of the gridlock in Washington. The Reid deal made sure the GOP kept that weapon.
Supposedly, the saving grace in all this is that in 2014 and beyond, Democrats might lose their majority in the Senate to the GOP and then they'll need the filibuster as their weapon to hold the GOP in check from riding roughshod over the Obama administration in getting its legislative initiatives through. But this is all guesswork and sophistry in trying to predict the future. The reality is that in the two years that the Democrats hold their Senate majority until January 2015 there will be countless numbers of presidential nominations that need to be approved, and crucial legislation from budget bills to immigration reform proposals that the Obama administration and Democrats will be pushing. And even if the GOP does take majority control of the Senate in January 2015, there's absolutely no guarantee that it won't simply rewrite the rules to do what Reid didn't do, and that's sharply limit how and when the filibuster can be used. The loser would still be the Democrats, because that's who the GOP would target.
The filibuster as any congressional watcher knows has been the one weapon that an out gunned, and out voted minority bloc in the Senate, or even as Paul showed, a lone senator, can snatch at to delay, muddle, waste time, and ultimately score political points on at the expense of the other party. It also had the dangerous byproduct of instantly elevating Paul to a virtual folk hero to conservatives and vaulted him instantly from the right wing fringe to a respected Party leader, and even talk of a Paul presidential bid in 2016.
The filibuster has been used time and again to wreak more political harm than good. This was evident during the endless debates and filibusters over civil rights to judicial appointments, and agency and cabinet appointments. The warning signs were there even before Paul launched into his grandstanding marathon talkathon against Brennan.
The GOP nailed to the wall the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the D.C. Circuit of Appeals. Her sole political sin to the GOP was that as New York Solicitor General she represented the state in its 2001 lawsuit against numerous gun manufacturers, in which the state argued that the legal sale of handguns created a "public nuisance" under state law. This made her a political pariah, or as McConnell said, a dreaded judicial activist, on the bench. The derailing of the Halligan appointment by the GOP blew to smithereens the theory that the supposedly weakened, discredited NRA could no longer totally get its way in Congress.
Then there was the GOP's filibuster of the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. This was followed by a public letter from 43 GOP senators saber rattling any future Obama nominee to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This opens the door wide to filibuster any other Obama nominee that the GOP Senate minority deems inappropriate. Then there was sequestration. Though the GOP ultimately went along with the cuts, it still hinted that the filibuster could have been used to stymie them and try to force even deeper cuts.
The Paul filibuster and the GOP's double cross of Reid in using the filibuster whenever and however it pleases, did prompt Reid and a handful of other senators to scream foul. They dropped vague hints that they might revisit the deal that was made and promptly broken by the GOP and this time push for real reform of the filibuster rules. But that so far is as far as it has gone. There's no real guarantee that this will get past the talking stage.
In the meantime, the filibuster with all of its terrifying potential to delay or style effective legislation and the confirmation of Obama nominees that have been trapped in limbo for months, even years, remains in full play. Here's a final stat to drive home just how terrifying and damaging it has been. Since 2007, according to the Senate Historical Office, Democrats have had to end Republican filibusters more than 360 times. That is a record. With Obama in the White House for three more years, the GOP, thanks to the failure of top Democrat's to do something about it, may even break that record.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.