Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Rule 19 – Be Nice
No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming of a Senator. Senate Rule 19
It went viral when the Senate, using Rule 19 on February 7th, voted 49 to 43 to shut down Massachusetts Senate Democrat, Elizabeth Warren, in her statements against Donald Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions. Sessions, who ran afoul of a Senate vote when he was nominated for a federal judgeship 30 years ago because of track record that suggested racism, faced yet another confirmation process before that same body. But there were two profound differences from then to now: Sessions was still a sitting U.S. Senator (Republican from Alabama), and the Senate, controlled by Republicans, was hell-bent to confirm him.
The application of a century-old Senate rule effectively banned Warren from any further statements from the Senate floor on the subject of the Sessions confirmation. Her sin: reading a letter (see above) from Coretta Scott King (Martin Luther King’s widow) written in 1986 – and entered into the Senate Record at that time – in opposition to Sessions’ appointment to that federal judgeship. The BBC (February 8th) explains: “Ms Scott King's letter alleged that Mr Sessions was unsuitable for that role because he had ‘used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters’… Ms Warren also quoted the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who called Mr Sessions a ‘throwback to a shameful era’.
“Mr Sessions' nomination process has been dogged by of racism… The Alabama senator has denied the allegations, and his supporters have pointed to his vote to extend the Voting Rights Act.” Pretty clearly, there are numerous instances of Senators decrying other Senators where the Rule was not invoked. Here are a couple of those from Senate Republicans cited by Amber Phillips in the February 8th Washington Post:
May 2016. Republicans are in charge of the Senate, and Democrats have stalled a defense bill over concerns it was written too quickly and without their input. Cotton, a freshman senator with a little more than a year of experience under his belt, smashed through decorum to blast then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his ‘cancerous leadership.’
‘I'm forced to listen to the bitter, vulgar, incoherent ramblings of the minority leader,’ ‘Normally, like every other American, I ignore them. I can't ignore them today. . . . When was the last time the minority leader read a bill? It was probably an electricity bill. ... This institution will be cursed less with his cancerous leadership.’…
It's summer 2015. The Republican Party is in the midst of a showdown with itself over whether to fund an obscure government agency that helps fund risky U.S. investment abroad, the Export-Import Bank. As… reported at the time:
Cruz got wind that Senate Republicans were going to try to start up the bank as part of a three-month transportation funding bill. He marched onto the Senate floor and accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of lying to him -- a pretty incredible breach of Senate decorum.
‘What we just saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over and over again was a simple lie,’ Cruz said. ‘We now know that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment, that he is willing to say things that he knows are false.’…
[In 1979,] Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.) called Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) ‘an idiot’ and ‘devious.’ The Post's Derek Hawkins reports Heinz reportedly stormed to the front of the room with a rule book and showed him Rule 19. There are lots more examples, but you get the picture. And yet in none of these was Rule 19 actually invoked, much less voted upon. Why?
“Historians and Senate aides have an easier time coming up with moments when it perhaps should have been invoked but wasn't, than when it actually was invoked.
“There are a few reasons for that. Rule 19 is actually sort-of tricky. Like a referee watching for fouls, calling someone out on Rule 19 requires a senator to declare a violation in real time -- and then for a majority of senators to vote in agreement that said senator violated it. In many recent instances where Rule 19 could have been invoked, Senate leaders have decided going through all that trouble just wasn't worth it.” The Post. Oh, and one more thing: we have not been so polarized, with civility a seeming relic of the past, since the Civil War. Compromise just plain does not exist in politics today.
Folks might wonder why free speech is being limited on the floor of the Senate, but the rule, passed at the beginning of the 20th century, was enacted over actions and not words. TheWeek.com (February 9th) explains: “As it turns out, Rule 19 dates back to a different — and perhaps more violent — time in the Senate, The Washington Post reports. In 1902, a fistfight erupted between South Carolina's two Democratic senators after the senior senator, Benjamin Tillman, accused his protégé, John McLaurin, of working with Republicans on some issues. McLaurin had fallen victim to ‘improper influences,’ Tillman alleged, prompting McLaurin to storm into the chamber and accuse Tillman of a ‘willful, malicious, and deliberate lie.’
“Naturally, the pair started throwing punches. ‘Efforts to separate the two combatants resulted in misdirected punches landing on other members,’ Senate historians recalled. Rule 19 was adopted shortly afterward, apparently to keep senators in line (or at least more docile) during floor debates.” Alt-Right Breitbart news cheered Warren’s censure, noting that she was warned several times by Republican presiding officer, Steve Daines (R-Montana), while outraged Democrats suggested that this vote only reinforced Warren’s stature across the land.
Whatever your political bent, it does seem a bit strange to apply Rule 19 to stop a free and open debate about someone being considered completely outside of that person’s capacity as a U.S. Senator. Why does a sitting senator get a “get of criticism free” card when he/she is being considered for Attorney General? Doesn’t make sense, and I suspect Elizabeth Warren’s punch is purely verbal. By the way, Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General by a 52 to 47 vote on February 8th. How times change.
I’m Peter Dekom, and using a rule created for one purpose to stifle debate for an entirely different purpose does seem to be a rather nasty affront to the very notion of democracy.