Last Wednesday, Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky led a 13-hour filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, shining a spotlight not only on the issue he was discussing—the administration’s use of drones—but also on one of the most curious traditions in American government.
The filibuster is one of the most powerful tactics an individual senator can use to influence legislation, bringing work to a halt and creating pressure on the majority to accommodate his or her concerns. These days, it’s usually the mere threat of a filibuster that gets the job done. When the real thing happens, it’s sometimes over an important national issue, sometimes over a more local matter. Ratification of the Treaty of Versailles was filibustered in 1919. The longest one-man filibuster on record was former Senator Strom Thumond’s 24-hour-18-minute filibuster of the Civil Rights Act in 1957. The first televised filibuster, in 1992, was a 15-hour-14-minute marathon by New York Senator Al D’Amato trying to prevent the shutdown of a Smith-Corona typewriter factory in upstate New York.