They shut up Sen. Elizabeth Warren during the debate over the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions to be U.S. attorney general. She was put in her seat Tuesday for attempting to read from materials entered into the congressional record in 1986 when the Senate considered Sessions for a seat on the federal bench. The materials she attempted to read included statements by former senator Edward M. Kennedy and Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Senate debate is governed by Rule 19, which includes a rarely invoked clause empowering the presiding officer to enforce standards of decorum on the Senate floor. That person is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Here's what the clause says: "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."
Warren quoted Kennedy, who had called Sessions a “disgrace,” which prompted McConnell to warn Warren that she was on the verge of breaking Rule 19. When Warren then read from King’s letter, he called her to order. Warren asked to continue her remarks — suggesting that she was quoting from a letter already introduced into the record. McConnell objected and she lost her appeal on a 49-43 party-line vote.
As McConnell later said: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Can we put partisan politics aside for a few minutes and look at what happened? Don't think of this issue in the context of whether you are liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. Forget whether you approve of Sessions or think he is a racist. Forget whether you like Warren or not. Concentrate on Rule 19 and its history.
Thomas Jefferson’s "A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States" is considered the guideline for civilized debate. The 1801 manual included the provision that "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 chamber, or to walk up and down it, or to take books or papers from the (clerk’s) table, or write there."
Rule 19 was formalized in 1902, when a South Carolina senator accused one of his peers of being guilty of telling a malicious lie, which resulted in the alleged liar punching his accuser in the jaw. This incident caused quite a stir as their fellow senators attempted to break up the fight and restore decorum. Those folks back in the day make our senators sound calm, don't they? Fortunately, we have not witnessed an outright brawl in recent years.
What we are seeing, however, is a Senate rule being applied to Warren when it has not been applied to others. Interestingly, McConnell himself was called a liar by Sen. Ted Cruz -- and it happened on the Senate floor July 24, 2015. No one invoked Rule 19.
As noted by many news sources, this Rule 19 is rarely invoked. How rarely? Perhaps only a couple of times since the historic brawl on the Senate floor. The Pulitzer Prize -winning news site PoltiFact spoke with Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political scientist. Koger searched a data set he maintains listing every Senate roll call vote from 1789 to 2014. The database doesn't label the use of Rule 19, but one of the codes used to classify votes are for allowing a lawmaker to speak after he or she has been reprimanded, which was a vote held regarding Warren on Feb. 7. Koger found only two previous votes on this question in the history of the Senate -- on Jan.. 29, 1915, and April 21, 1952, according to PoltiFact.
So Cruz did the same thing as Warren, with no shut up and sit down rule being applied. He even later reiterated his comments before a televised audience.
"I cannot believe [McConnell] would tell a flat-out lie," Cruz said on the Senate floor. A year later during a town hall meeting on MSNBC, Cruz stood by his comments when asked about the incident: "Every word I said there is true and accurate. No one disputed a word I said. The reaction in the Senate is how dare you say that out loud? They're not upset that somebody lied to them!"
He makes a good point. They don't mind liars. Just don't go reading from the congressional record and quote others who have made comments about the disgraceful conduct of one of your peers. That would be out of line and prompt the unearthing of the rule book.
As McConnell now famously said: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Indeed. She persisted and she or anyone else who is held to different standards than their peers should persist and resist -- on the Senate floor and in communities across the land.
Shea Wilson is the former managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com @sheawilson7.