Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and a Republican presidential contender, speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate, May 20, 2015, at the Capitol in Washington, during a long speech opposing renewal of the Patriot Act.
Photo by Senate TV/AP

The point of Rand Paul’s 10-hour spectacle

One of the more noteworthy points of Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) relatively brief political career came two years ago with a 13-hour speech. Taking advantage of John Brennan’s CIA nomination, the Republican senator demanded to know, “Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?”
It’s a shame, in a way, that this was a defining moment for Paul, because his question didn’t really make much sense. The Justice Department responded a day later with a one-sentence reply – no, the president does not have that authority – and Paul said he was satisfied.
But the substance was largely overlooked, and the spectacle impressed many of Paul’s core supporters and much of the political media. His limited understanding of the issue didn’t matter – “Stand With Rand” was born.
Which brings us to yesterday, and the Kentucky lawmaker’s latest attempt at a Senate spectacle. Paul took the Senate floor mid-day, and as NBC News reported, wrapped up shortly before midnight.
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has ended a more than 10 ½-hour filibuster-like speech on the Senate floor to protest the renewal of the Patriot Act, highlighting his opposition to the National Security Agency’s controversial bulk collection of telephone data.
As his speech got underway, Paul said on Twitter, “I’ve just taken the senate floor to begin a filibuster of the Patriot Act renewal. It’s time to end the NSA spying!”
Strictly speaking, that’s not quite right. For one thing, it wasn’t a filibuster. For another, the bill pending on the Senate floor at the time was a trade measure, not renewal of the Patriot Act. And finally, Paul’s 10-hour speech won’t end the NSA’s surveillance program, or really have much of an impact on public policy at all.
So if Paul’s explanation for the stunt paints an incomplete picture, what was the actual point of yesterday’s drama on the Senate floor?
As we discussed a week ago, Congress has until June 1 to extend the provision of the Patriot Act that authorizes the collection of telephone records. The House, in a rare bipartisan display, passed something called the “U.S.A. Freedom Act” that would reform the surveillance program, moving the data to private-sector telecommunications companies – which already collect the information for billing purposes – though the government would still be able to access the information.
The U.S.A. Freedom Act faces resistance in the Senate, where it’s opposed by Republican hawks (who believe it goes too far to reform the surveillance program) and by Rand Paul (who believes it doesn’t go far enough).
The real trick, at least for right now, is the calendar – Congress is off next week, which means the Senate is running short on time to approve some must-pass bills.
And that’s ultimately why Rand Paul’s 10-hour speech matters. The chamber has a lot to do and little time to do it, so when he chewed up the clock, it had the practical effect of delaying the Senate schedule. Members who planned to head home tomorrow will now probably have to work over the weekend.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “So? Who cares if senators have to work on a Saturday?” It appears the answer is, “Rand Paul cares.” He set out to get attention for his cause – concerns about the Patriot Act – which he’s done. The practical effect is a bunch of irritated senators, but the Kentucky Republican was once again able to steal the spotlight for himself, which is exactly what presidential candidates hope to do.