The United States’ Congress has a lot of rules. They have rules on who can talk and when. They have rules on what you can talk about. They have rules about how many people can vote for you to stop talking. The Senate’s rules are different than the House of Representatives. The respective committees in the different houses have different purviews, etc etc.
The rule everyone is talking about currently: Rule 19, a.k.a. Rule XIX (because it just looks cooler in Roman Numerals despite this being ‘AMERICA, PAL!’), is a multi-sectioned page turner that outlines when and how a senator is recognized to have the floor, and what they can or can’t say, along with an admonishment that they not recognize anyone or anything in the galleries. That last section cannot be amended even by unanimous vote of the senate. The people who wrote Rule XIX were damn skippy about section 7.
I say all that to say, this isn’t what I want to talk about. I don’t care about Mitch McConnell’s willy-nilly enforcement of Rule XIX, he learned all the rules, good for him. I want to talk about WHY we need a Rule 19 in the first place. While our current president attempts to return this country to its perceived former greatness, I’d like to address a time before our country could ever be considered great.
In this author’s opinion, that’s pretty much anytime before 1915, and even that year isn’t a hard and fast rule. There are two glaring incidents in Senate history that constitute why we have a Rule 19, The first of which we’ll call “Senator Sumner v. Congressman Brooks-(D-SC)”.
On May 19th, Senator Sumner (R-MA) addressed the Senate during the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis. In a rather lengthy speech he lambasted the Kansas-Nebraska act, as well as it’s authors Senator Butler (D-SC) and Senator Douglas (D-IL). His eloquent exorcism of conscience was considered unreasonably aggressive by many of the Southern Gentlemen in the chamber and galleries. The second cousin of Senator Butler, a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina took particular umbrage to the things said about his cousin and his state.
He pondered challenging Sumner to a duel, but a fellow South Carolingian assured him that duels were for honorable people of the same social standing and that Sumner warranted no more than the respect that would be shown a common drunkard. So instead of besmirching his honor by challenging Sumner to a duel, Brooks did the next best thing and ganged up on the Senator from Massachusetts. He and two accomplices waited until the Senate chambers were mostly empty and then set upon the Senator with a gold headed cane.
Brooks beat Sumner so badly it took 3 years for the abolitionist Senator to return to his Senate seat. For his part in the assault, Brooks was fined $300 (the equivalent of $8000 today) and served no jail time. He resigned his Congressional seat so that a special election held by his constituents could ratify or damn his actions. He was immediately re-elected to his seat in the special election, and then elected to another term later in the year. He died before the new session could begin.
The second scuffle that leads us to need a Rule XIX occurred on February 22nd, 1902, this time between two South Carolingians, both Democrats. John McLaurin and “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman came to blows on the Senate floor after Pitchfork accused McLaurin (behind his back) of selling his vote to the Republicans because they were the currently ruling party. McLaurin returned to the chamber, having heard the accusation and accused Pitchfork of being a willful and malicious liar.
Pitchfork promptly punched his accuser in the face. The junior senator from South Carolina countered with a punch of his own and the two Senators had to be separated by their peers who suffered bruises of their own in the ensuing fracas. Both senators were censured, and the event served as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Sumner’s contemporary from the state of Massachusetts, George Hoar (R-MA), proposed the following rule: “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.”
Language that still exists today in Rule XIX. So while it may seem unfair that due process and parliamentary procedure was used to silence a duly elected representative of the people. At least Senator Sessions or one of his cousins’ hasn’t bashed Elizabeth Warren’s brains in. Hey, maybe we ARE great again.