Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Rule XIX

I've always been something of a political junky. In my thirty-five years teaching secondary social science the classes I enjoyed the most were government and politics electives. I watch C-SPAN a lot. Last night I was watching the Senate debate on confirmation of Sen. Sessions as Attorney General just as Senate Rule XIX was invoked against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass). I've become weary of the acrimony that seems to characterize most political discourse these days but remain very interested in political process. This morning The Washington Post explained the origin of this section of Rule XIX:
.... 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.”

When the fight ended, the Senate voted to censure the two men. A panel found that their behavior was “an infringement of the privileges of the Senate, a violation of its rules and derogatory to its high character, tending to bring the body itself into public contempt.”

The episode prompted the senate to tighten its rules governing decorum in floor debate. Rule 19 (sections 2 and 3, to be precise) was adopted later that year.

In the time since, the rule has rarely come up. One instance flagged by Bloomberg’s Greg Giroux occurred in 1979, when Sen. Lowell Weicker (R-Conn.) called Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) “an idiot” and “devious” in a debate on the Senate floor. Heinz reportedly stormed to the front of the room with a rule book and showed him Rule 19. Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) defused the situation and asked them to shake hands. ....
There has been some suggestion that Rule XIX was on the Republican leader's mind because Sen. McConnell may be considering using another section of that rule to frustrate a filibuster against Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch. Apparently the last time Rule XIX was used to end a filibuster was when southern Senators were attempting to prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.