Rand Paul's 13-hour filibuster against drone strikes sets Senate alight

The junior senator from Kentucky is now getting some much-needed rest.

Libertarian Republican senator Rand Paul, the son of wannabe Republican presidential nominee Ron Paul, made history last night with one of the longest filibuster speeches in American history. Paul spoke for thirteen hours in an attempt to delay the senate confirmation of John Brennan to run the CIA, making a case against the President's equivocation on whether or not it is legitimate to carry out drone strikes on American citizens on American soil.

The filibuster has become a standard part of Senate republican blocking tactics in recent years, in part because its meaning has changed over time. It used to be the case that to filibuster a debate meant to speak at length in order to prevent it coming to a vote, with the intention being that the Senate would run out of time and have to move on to other business.

It was in that climate that Strom Thurmond made the longest ever filibuster speech during the debate over the 1957 civil rights act, speaking for 25 hours straight against the bill. (The fact that Thurmond's marathon effort was in support of racism didn't play against him, and he went on to become the oldest and longest-serving senator in US history, switching allegiance to the Republican party in 1964 and only retiring in 2003.)

Thurmond's attempt failed because the Senate authorities were prepared to delay all future discussions until the civil rights act passed. But in recent years, merely the threat of a filibuster has been enough to cause a bill to be abandoned. Since a vote of "cloture"—a motion to end the debate and move to a vote—requires a supermajority of sixty of the hundred senators, this has the effect of meaning that the minority party, provided it has more than forty senators, can control the Senate.

Earlier in the same session, Paul had joined in with this more common style of filibustering, refusing a vote of cloture for a judicial nominee who had once sued a gun company. But taking a stand agains Brennan, he did it the old-fashioned way, speaking passionately for thirteen hours on the problems with extrajudicial killing of Americans.

Frequently in filibusters, in the US and elsewhere, the delaying tactics are transparent. Legislators have even been known to read the contents of the phonebook in an attempt to find something to say, and one memorable case in Canada involved an MP reading the entirety of his own book to the parliament. Since the Canadian Hansard is bilingual, he was accused of receiving a taxpayer-funded translation on purpose.

This time, the debate was more on-message, although Politico does report some off-topic speeches from other senators joining in the filibuster:

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin gave a speech as much about the dysfunctional Senate and the dangers of the national debt as about drone policy. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said that the essential issue of liberty shouldn’t divide the political parties. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona told Paul “the question you’ve asked is totally right and proper.” And so on.

As Ezra Klein points out, the success of Paul's filibuster—it was the first-term senator's biggest moment in the legislature to date, and succeeded in making his objections stand out from the normal Republican obstructionism—shows that there are times when the filibuster is a positive contribution to the machinations of the Senate. Klein writes:

This is the highest purpose of the filibuster: Allowing a passionate minority to slow down the Senate and make their case to both their colleagues and the American people. If more filibusters went like this, there'd be no reason to demand reform. And if there is reform, it needs to hold open the possibility for filibusters like this.

Eventually, nature took its course and Paul retired from the chamber, ending his speech with a note of regret that Thrumond's achievement still stands:

I would try to go another 12 hours and try to break Strom Thurmond’s record, but there are some limits to filibustering and I am going to have to go take care of one of those here.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.