08 February 2017

Senatorial correctness

Apparently there's one place where you can't call someone a racist, and that's the U.S. Senate -- as long as the subject is a U.S. Senator. Last night the Majority Leader disqualified Senator Warren of Massachusetts from further debate over confirming Sen. Sessions of Alabama as the next Attorney General for violating section 2 of Senate Rule XIX. According to this section, adopted in 1902, "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 violated this rule by reading a letter Coretta Scott King had written in 1986 opposing Sessions' nomination to a federal judgeship, accusing him (he was denied that post) of using a "shabby" vote-fraud case to subvert black voting rights. That apparently impugned Sessions' motives at a time before he was a Senator, while a quotation from Ted Kennedy, also opposing the judgeship, impugned Sessions' character by claiming he would a "disgrace" to the Justice Department he is now likely to head.

The rule was introduced to suppress the use of fighting words lest they result in actual fights. According to this report, the incident that led to the rule saw the senior Senator from South Carolina, "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, attack the junior Senator, his fellow Democrat, for calling him a liar after Tillman had accused him of treachery under "improper influences." In a more notorious example, back in 1856 Senator Sumner of Massachusetts supposedly slandered Senator Butler, again of South Carolina, provoking Butler's cousin, Rep. Preston Brooks, to invade the Senate chamber and  beat Sumner nearly to death with a cane. It's worth noting in this context that section 3 of Rule XIX, adopted at the same time, prohibits similar reflections on any state in the Union.

Last night, the Majority Leader was promptly accused of selective, partisan enforcement of the rule. He was reminded that not so long ago, Sen. Cruz of Texas, a fellow Republican, had called Sen. McConnell himself a liar on the Senate floor, but suffered no formal rebuke. Meanwhile, the King letter (not so much the Kennedy) took social media by storm, and Warren probably gained more support as a prospective 2020 presidential candidate, even though she'll be older than than either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was last year. Whatever the rule says, McConnell's action, and the instant exposure of his inconsistency in enforcing the rule, appeared to reconfirm the paranoid opposition narrative that the Trump regime's ultimate goal is to suppress dissent by any means available. I suspect that, like many Republicans, McConnell was sick and tired of Democratic delaying tactics when the minority can't really do anything to defeat the President's Cabinet nominees. Their best chance came and went yesterday, when the Vice President had to cast a tie-breaking vote to confirm the new Secretary of Education, but there are unlikely to be Republican defectors against Sessions. Democratic opposition thus becomes mere posturing, but it's as much their prerogative to posture as it was Republicans' whenever President Obama nominated people they disliked. Think what you will of President Trump, but to hear Republicans whine that Democrats should "give him a chance" after their eight years of obstructing Obama is disgusting. Of course, someone can say it's disgusting that the Democrats won't give Trump a chance after eight years of insisting that Obama be given a chance, but I think those who insisted on their right, if not their moral obligation, to obstruct are the bigger hypocrites right now when they deplore obstructionism.

Maybe it was the Majority Leader's personal prerogative not to recognize an insult when Cruz attacked his character, while he may have felt obliged to defend a colleague who, as the nominee under consideration, could not defend himself, but hypocrisy explains the situation just as well. Rule XIX, section 2 probably isn't a bad thing in itself, but there ought to be a consistent, nonpartisan way of enforcing it and similar rules designed to ensure civility in debate. Otherwise it's just politics as usual, and I don't know if that's really worse than having people brawl on the Senate floor to defend their honor.


Anonymous said...

I should think one would have to have honor first, before being in a position to defend it. I would further add that this government is without honor and has been so for a very long time.

Samuel Wilson said...

It looks like the Senate is going to quite an interesting (if not honorable) place for at least the next four years.