One Senator suggested that another had been bribed, the accused responded by calling the accuser a liar, both then punched each other in the face—all on the floor of the United States Senate. Those actions in 1902 were the impetus for the Senate enacting Rule 19, which governs the decorum of debate—the rule that was used to silence Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren last night during Senate debate over the confirmation of Alabama Republican Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, III to the post of United States Attorney General. Section 2 of Rule 19 states that:
“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 a Senator.”
It should really be no surprise that the two senators whose actions led to the adoption of Rule 19 both hailed from the state of South Carolina (given our state’s representatives’ propensity towards violence in the chambers of Congress), or that the instigator of the confrontation was Benjamin Ryan Tillman. He had been governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894, and had served as United States Senator since 1895. During his political career he had repeatedly advocated the use of violence to terrorize South Carolina’s black community, restrict black suffrage, and silence his political opponents. In February 1902, Tillman felt that his conception of honor compelled him to attack his one-time protégé, John L. McLaurin, on the floor of the Senate after McLaurin accused him of “a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie.” The “lie” in question was Tillman’s accusations that the junior senator had been swayed by “improper influences” to change his vote regarding the treaty to annex the Philippines. The fight was eventually broken up by the Senate doorman and other Senators, both were formally censured, and in August 1902 the Senate adopted Rule 19.
This episode seems a far cry from Senator Warren’s actions last night. What was it that led to Senator Steve Daines (who was presiding at the time) to issue a warning to Warren and afterwards Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to accuse Warren of “impugn[ing] the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama”? Did she, like Tillman, accuse a colleague of taking a bribe? Or like McLaurin, accuse a colleague of lying? No. She quoted a statement made by late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and read from a letter written by Coretta Scott King to the Senate Judiciary Committee, both of which date from Senate hearings regarding Sessions’ nomination to be a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama in 1986. And it didn’t stop there! McConnell gifted a new rallying cry to those supporting Warren when explaining why she was silenced: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
The Senate has long been a body accused of operating by arcane rules developed over its nearly 230 year history, and last night seems to have proven that out again. But Rule 19 does have its place. Senators should not be able to accuse their colleagues of accepting bribes or lying without proof and exchanging blows to the face should be discouraged during debate, but can quoting statements made during Senate committee hearings and documents submitted to Senate committees really be considered “conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator”? Or instead, was this the use of an arcane rule to prevent one of the Senate’s most outspoken critics of Sessions from participating in any other debate about his nomination before a confirmation vote? It’s hard not to suspect the latter when the ruling that Warren violated Rule 19 was upheld 49-43 on a strictly party line vote.
Warren persisted, and continued to read King’s letter outside of the Senate chamber after she was prevented from doing so during the debate, and continued to discuss the episode this morning at a Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee meeting.