So we're some number of hours into Rand Paul's talking filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan for Director of the CIA. Paul has been joined by a few Republicans and by one Democrat, Ron Wyden. Everyone agrees that 60 or more Senators support the nomination, so at this point it's just a case of how long Paul wants to keep it going; presumably it ends when he's done, although it is possible that the others could tag-team and keep it going indefinitely and thus force a cloture petition to end it.
As usual, these things draw a lot of attention from the political press, which these days means that it sort of eats up twitter (well, at least for those who have politics-centered twitter feeds). It also is drawing a lot of attention from filibuster reformers, who (as Ezra Klein does here) are praising it as the good kind of filibuster. Josh Marshall says "This is a great example of why the talking filibuster is exactly what we need."
I'll say a few things about that. One is that we don't actually know right now how long this will go on. If it continues for a week (assuming no cloture petition), would these filibuster opponents still love the talking filibuster? What if Paul and his group did this once a week? Is it still a good thing?
What's more, as far as this being in the true spirit of filibusters as opposed to normal "silent" modern filibusters: I disagree. The spirit of a filibuster is to attempt to defeat something the majority wants by delay or the equivalent of delay. One might say that it's in the best spirit of the Senate for individual or small groups of Senators to use their rights under Senate rules to call attention to something, but that's not necessarily by filibuster.
Indeed: it's fairly likely that Paul's filibuster drew attention today away from far more substantive action on the same issues: Attorney General Holder's grilling from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Granted, it's hard to tell; perhaps Paul is raising the issue to a generally higher profile (and, at least at the NYT home page, the attention is on Holder, not Paul).
But it's worth remembering that "Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work." Good reporters will keep that in mind and assess how "Congress at work" is doing -- and take it seriously -- rather than being overly impressed at how well they do the public exhibition portion of it.
The last thing is that today's live filibuster shows again just how easy it is to hold the Senate floor for an extended period. I continue to believe that Jeff Merkley's talking filibuster suggestion is not only misguided (because, in part, it puts more emphasis on that public exhibition thing) but just wouldn't work. Essentially, Paul is willing to do this because he believes in the cause and because it plays well with his constituency. A talking filibuster showdown under Merkley would mean that every single Senator in the minority party would be fighting, the very first time they did this, for their future leverage in the Senate -- and surely that would play extremely well with the constituency they care most about.
Marshall believes that the current types of filibusters are invisible and therefore cost-free for the minority party in terms of public opinion, but that "A minority that is doing constant filibusters of everything — and by that I mean, visible filibusters — is going to take a public hit pretty quickly." I just don't see that. Sure, if you have a twitter feed like mine and if you watch C-SPAN, and if you support the majority party, then you'll be annoyed by a talking filibuster and angry with the minority party. But if you support the minority party you'll cheer them on. And most people will barely know it's going on, and at best will just be reminded of how much they hate Congress. Which, technically, is good for the party with fewer incumbents -- the ones who are doing the filibustering. Not to mention that anyone who does turn on C-SPAN today is getting a steady dose of Rand Paul's views, not the majority party's views. I see no reason at all to expect a public hit from talking filibusters.
All that said: I have nothing at all against what Rand Paul is doing today, and I think it's fine that Senate rules allow it. But don't be fooled into thinking that this is the Senate at its best; the Senate at it's best is doing real legislating and real oversight, not making speeches. And to the extent that Paul is reinforcing the romantic notion that talking filibusters are some sort of ideal, it's hurting the prospects for solid, effective Senate reform. Which remains, alas, badly needed.