Yesterday, in writing about the Senate’s rebuke and silencing of Elizabeth Warren for disparaging Jeff Sessions, I discussed the rule invoked by Mitch McConnell to accomplish this. Rule 19 provides that Senators are not allowed to “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.”
I suggested that Rule 19 is an anachronism. It seemed to me that, while perhaps useful at one time in “curbing dueling or caning or something,” Rule 19 now just curbs robust speech for no very good reason. I also suggested that McConnell’s action made Warren a victim.
It turns out that Rule 19 was adopted in the post-dueling, post-caning era in response to a fight on the Senate floor in 1902. According to the Washington Post:
It was February 1902 and a feud was escalating between the two Democratic senators from South Carolina. Benjamin Tillman, the senior senator and something of a political boss in the state, had grown angry that John McLaurin, his protege, was allowing Senate Republicans to court him on some issues, including the annexation of the Philippines.
Furious that McLaurin was colluding with the other side of the aisle, Tillman used a Feb. 22, 1902, speech on the Senate floor to harangue the younger senator. Gesturing toward McLaurin’s empty chair, Tillman accused his counterpart of treachery and corruption, saying he had succumbed to “improper influences,” according to a Senate history of the dispute.
When McLaurin caught wind of Tillman’s remarks, he rushed into the chamber and shouted that Tillman was telling a “willful, malicious and deliberate lie.”
A fistfight erupted. As Senate historians recounted, “The 54-year-old Tillman jumped from his place and physically attacked McLaurin, who was 41, with a series of stinging blows. Efforts to separate the two combatants resulted in misdirected punches landing on other members.”…
Rule 19 (sections 2 and 3, to be precise) was adopted later that year.
I doubt that these days Rule 19 is needed to prevent fist fights. In any event, the statements Warren made about Sessions (actually quotations from what others said years ago) were considerably less inflammatory than the insults hurled by “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman and John McLaurin. Her remarks did not remotely threaten to produce fisticuffs in the 21st century Senate.
What about the politics of McConnell’s invocation of Rule 19? There can be little doubt that he turned Warren into a victim in the eyes of many. But did doing so help or hurt Republicans?
I heard Hugh Hewitt say that McConnell’s move will help the GOP by turning the left-wing Massachusetts Senator into the face of the Democratic party. I don’t know that this episode will be sufficient to accomplish that (though Warren may attain that status). What it will accomplish, I think, is to make her into a more sympathetic figure in the eyes of many — and not just leftists. Being slammed and silenced for quoting Martin Luther King’s widow can have that effect.
In addition, it may well make McConnell, who is the face of the GOP in the Senate, a less sympathetic figure in the eyes of many — and not just leftists. Slamming and silencing a Senator for quoting Martin Luther King’s widow can have that effect. Doing it to a female Senator may reinforce the Democrats’ “war on women” narrative.
Finally, a footnote on South Carolina. Sens. Tillman and McLaurin were from there. So was Rep. Preston Brooks, the man who caned Sen. Charles Sumner, nearly killing the Massachusetts man.
So was Sen. Strom Thurmond, who in 1964 wrestled Sen. Ralph Yarbourough to the floor outside a committee’s room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. This bout, though related to the fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which Thurmond vehemently opposed, apparently was semi-friendly. Nonetheless, it was unbecoming two 61 year-old Senators.
I don’t quite see Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott living up to the Brooks-Tillman-McLaurin-Thurmond battling tradition. So I believe Rule 19 can safely be revoked.