What most Americans know about filibusters comes from the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in which James Stewart, as the naive and idealistic Sen. Jefferson Smith, talks for 24 hours and himself into exhaustion to successfully delay a spending bill.
The movie was released in 1939, when senators really did have to talk nonstop to prevent legislation they opposed from being voted on. In those days, the Senate had legendary windbags like Huey Long, D-La., and Strom Thurmond, at the time a Democrat from South Carolina, who holds the record at just over 24 hours.
Now a senator merely has to inform the leadership of an intention to filibuster to delay a bill. Meanwhile, the Senate goes about its business until the bill’s supporters can round up the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster.
Until this week, the last “talking filibuster” was in 2010, when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., spoke for eight hours against extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts.
Freshman Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., this week vowed to “speak until I can no longer speak” to force the Obama administration to renounce the use of drones to attack American citizens in the United States.
He lasted 12 hours and 52 minutes. The Associated Press, searching for a more modern standard than “Mr. Smith,” said that was roughly the combined length of the “Star Wars” movies.
Many senators, including those in the Democratic leadership, have become disillusioned with the modern version of the filibuster, finding it more a means of obstruction than an expression of principle. By standing up and talking, Paul may have bolstered those who think the modern filibuster has become far too easy.
But he has probably not earned the gratitude of fellow lawmakers whose constituents, opposing a particular piece of legislation, will demand of their senator: “Why don’t you stand up and talk for 12 hours like that Senator Paul? You know he said he was prepared to wear a catheter, don’t you?”