John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

Contempt for the Rules of the Senate Leads to Contempt of the Senate

Posted on February 8, 2017
A radical Republican, Charles Sumner was a fierce and outspoken critic of what Kenneth Stampp called the peculiar institution, better known to us as slavery.

In 1856, he delivered a powerful rebuke of his fellow Senator, Andrew Butler, in a memorable speech called, “The Crime against Kansas.”   Kansas was at the epicenter of the battle between pro-slavery expansion advocates and abolitionists.  Sumner called his colleague a pimp for the slave trade on the Senate floor.  Two days later, Preston Brooks, a House Member and a cousin of Senator Butler, brutally attacked Senator Sumner with a gutta percha wood cane encased with a gold top, nearly killing him.

Most historians point to that episode as a searing example of the kind of breakdown of comity that would eventually lead to the American Civil War.

The rules of the Senate had already warned against Members acting like school children.  Thomas Jefferson, wrote in his still-used manual about parliamentary procedure, well before this episode:
"No one is to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another; nor to stand up or interrupt him; nor to pass between the Speaker and the speaking member; nor to go across the [Senate chamber], or to walk up and down it, or to take books or papers from the [clerk's] table, or write there."

44 years later after that episode, it became abundantly clear that Senators needed further reminding about the proper etiquette in the Upper Chamber when John McLaurin, the Junior Senator from South Carolina got into a fist fight with Ben Tillman, the Senior Senator from South Carolina.

I guess there is something in the water in South Carolina.

According to the Senate historian,
“Although Tillman and McLaurin had once been political allies, the relationship had recently cooled. Both were Democrats, but McLaurin had moved closer to the Republicans, who then controlled Congress, the White House, and a lot of South Carolina patronage. When McLaurin changed his position to support Republicans on a controversial treaty, Tillman's rage erupted. With McLaurin away from the chamber, he had charged that his colleague had succumbed to "improper influences."   On February 28, 1902, the Senate censured both men and added to its rules the provision that survives today as part of Rule XIX: "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."

The Senate is a continuous body, meaning that it never truly goes out of the session. As such, with its rules and its traditions, it lives on year after year, decade after decade.  Senators, especially institutionalists like Mitch McConnell, take seriously the history that they live every day. When a new Senator comes in and threatens to blow the place up, it causes great disturbances in the cosmic force that keeps this country bound together.

The interplay between Leader McConnell and Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts, will undoubtedly be played out in the press as a mistake for Mr. McConnell.

Senator Warren had been warned for over a year that many of her rantings on the Senate floor were breaking the rules.  She knew precisely what she was doing because she wanted to make the maximum impact for her political future.

But knowingly breaking the rules to make a political point is not only bad form in a legislative body that values tradition and respect.  It is dangerous for the country that already holds the Congress and the White House in low esteem.

A breakdown in civil society starts at the top.

When Preston Brooks clubbed Charles Sumner, he got kudos from his partisans.  Sumner, as the victim of the attack, got great sympathy from his supporters.  The country grew further divided as the political institutions meant to bind us together with a common respect of our Constitution started collapsing.

Warren might think she is a clever rules breaker, but in fact by showing contempt for the Senate Rules, she shows contempt for the Senate itself.

Do we really need a Senator who holds the Senate in contempt?

Ted Kennedy, the great lion of the Upper Chamber, would be aghast.  He had such respect for the Congress and for the Constitution that he actively sought out Republican allies to solve tough problems.  He did so not because he had such great love of Senator Hatch or John McCain.  He did so because he believed in the Senate as the place where difficult problems get resolved peacefully under our Constitution.  Kennedy had great reverence for the Senate as an institution and as a body that had a rich tradition based on rules and precedent.

Some might see Mitch McConnell as committing a political blunder by citing Rule XIX and making Senator Warren abide by the rules of the Senate.  But it was no blunder.  It was a courageous act of somebody who loves the Senate and respects our Constitution.