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A Senate Rule Silenced Elizabeth Warren. Is That Rule So Bad?

In this image from Senate Television, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017.
Senate TV
In this image from Senate Television, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017.

When Senate Republicans silenced Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during debate over the nomination of Jeff Sessions to serve as attorney general, they sparked a furious response — but also used a rule that's meant to encourage civil debate.

Senate Rule 19 includes this prohibition: "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."

While there is much room to argue Warren's specific case, the rule itself is one that many of us would do well to live by.

First, the facts. Warren spoke on the Senate floor. She criticized Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama and the nominee to lead the Justice Department. Warren read a letter from Coretta Scott King, written in 1986 as Sessions sought a post as a federal judge. Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow had questioned Sessions' work as a federal prosecutor: "Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters."

As she read the letter, Warren was warned by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who was presiding over the Senate at the time. Warren asked Daines how it could be improper to quote a letter from the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. and she was allowed by Daines to continue reading the letter. Later in Warren's remarks about Sessions, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, appeared in the chamber to stop Warren for violating Senate Rule 19 and the Senate, in a party-line vote, supported McConnell. Warren was silenced—at least on the Senate floor—though she was soon reading the letter again on social media.

According to Senate Republicans, Warren impugned the "conduct or motive" of Sessions, who is expected to be confirmed as attorney general Wednesday night.

Warren's supporters saw a stifling of dissent, and asked how the mere reading a letter could violate the rule. It's a fair question: Can't a senator refer to the public record?

But set aside her specific case for a moment, just to focus on the purpose of the rule.

Rule 19 forbids an especially corrosive form of verbal combat.

Any student of interpersonal relations knows that questioning another person's motives escalates an argument. Think about the difference between saying "You're wrong" and "You deliberately lied." Or consider the last two words of a line spoken by a furious husband in the comedy A Christmas Story: "You used up all the glue ... ON PURPOSE!"

This reality applies to politics. Think of President Trump this week, who made a false claim about the media — that the media fail to cover terror attacks— and then suggested nefarious motives. "It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported," the president said, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. "And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that."

Rule 19 is meant to prevent this sort of fact-free statement, at least on the Senate floor.

Granted, such a rule can seem hopelessly outdated in an era of acid remarks on social media. It can also seem like a needless luxury at this moment when the political stakes are so high. We all need a full and ruthlessly honest debate. If there was ever a time to avoid tiptoeing around the issues, that moment surely is now.

But we also need civil debate. And in the Senate, lawmakers have learned to sting each other within Rule 19. If they have an insult to fling at another member, they simply disguise it as a compliment.

In 2001, as a reporter covering the Senate, I witnessed a particularly brilliant exchange on the floor between the late Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy and Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. Kennedy fiercely criticized Hatch's position. Hatch responded by saying Kennedy was wrong, and then adding a few lines of "praise."

"[Reality] doesn't stop bombastic arguments, nor should it. I love them myself. I love to see the distinguished senator from Massachusetts get up there and everybody's almost positive he's going to blow a fuse before he's through. He has a right to do that, and I admire him for doing it. I admire the way he supports his special interests. And I love my colleague, as very few in this body do."

Senators on the floor, and onlookers in the gallery, burst out laughing.

Nobody missed Hatch's point. Nor did anybody call out Hatch for a violation of Rule 19. Sen. Kennedy offered his own lines about Sen. Hatch. When the exchange was over, Kennedy — who was an old friend of Hatch — walked over and hugged him.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Inskeep