Crossing Senate lines

As Republicans silence the words of an acclaimed civil rights activist, new issues will arise in the coming weeks


Pictured above: Elizabeth Warren at a rally in Auburn Massachusetts. Photo by Tim Pierce via Flickr, cited under the Creative Commons License. As hearings continue for Trump’s cabinet, Democrats will continue vetting the picks and pushing back against the plethora of controversial choices in the coming weeks. With important cabinet members such as Secretary of Education and Treasury Secretary already decided, tensions continue to rise over what will be Republicans next step to secure Trump’s remaining positions.

With a slew of controversial cabinet choices, strong words soon characterized the debate of allowing Jeff Sessions to become the Attorney General on Feb. 7. While reading the letter of Coretta Scott King, Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced under Rule 19 of the Senate. While discussing topics such as Session’s history towards the Voting Rights Act and African-American discrimination, Warren soon received a warning from Republican Mitch McConnell and penalization in the house later on.

The rule, which was first enacted after a fistfight broke out over 115 years ago, reads that 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 instituted, the rule has acted more as a warning to deter language rather than being used in practice on the Senate floor, illustrated by some speeches that clearly broke the rule. This includes Republican Lowell Weicker’s speech in 1979, in which he angrily called another Senator an “idiot or when Ted Cruz claimed that Mitch McConnell was lying to him when talking about the Export-Import Bank.

Following the accusation, representatives voted on whether or not Warren was in violation of the rule, and in a close call of 49 to 43, forced her to cease her speech. After the rule was enacted, it forced Warren to not be able to speak during Session’s Attorney General hearing entirely. The debate ultimately ended with Sessions being confirmed the following day, Feb. 8.

While referencing the examples that define Rule 19, along with the ones that were warranted, but not prosecuted, only prove the degree of how unjust the decision Warren was prosecuted for on Senate floor. While the brief and loosely-used history of the century-old rule is far from detailed (or frankly, lengthy), those that are in “clear violation” of the rule show little to no resemblance of Warren’s actions.

To compare the calculated words of a well-known civil rights activist to the outbursts of frustrated Senate leaders is nothing less than an illegitimate use for such regulations.

A particularly controversial sentence King wrote that Warren read when protesting Sessions, said that “This simply cannot be allowed to happen. Mr. Sessions’ conduct as a US Attorney, from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicated that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge,” apparently hold a more personally offensive nature than the memorable outburst of Republican Senator Tom Cotton.

This occurred after Cotton, in a fit of anger, said “I’m forced to listen to the bitter, vulgar and incoherent ramblings of the Minority Leader,” and went on to call the leadership of the minority leader at the time, Harry Reid, “cancerous”

As president of the Junior State of America, Laura Bishop, senior, has talked extensively on this issue during her club meetings and plans to continue the discussion in the coming days.

JSA has talked briefly about the silencing but will be formally doing so on Friday at our meeting,” Bishop said. “At the moment we do not have a consensus, and I don’t expect us to come to one.”

Bishop personally believes that while Warren did break the rule, the motive may have been less than reasonable.

“I personally believe that she did break Rule 19.” Bishop said.  “However, I feel that the enforcement of the rule in this case was specifically targeted in that the rule was used specifically with the objective of silencing her as opposed to genuine enforcement of the rule.”

To look beyond the clouded judgement of party loyalty, comparing these two quotes, one that reflected a history of misconduct through the eyes of a prominent civil rights activist, is uncomparable to those that simply focused on the personal attack of another political opponent. This shows that at the very least, the judgement of such a rule is seriously flawed, based on the countless examples of senators remain unaffected.

The actions that Warren took on the senate floor may have angered Republicans for the articulation and characterization of Sessions, but not a single word from King’s monologue was, to the extent of other Republican Senators, as personal, violent or slanderous.

The reemergence of the rule can mark a turn within the Senate. Through what Democrats can clearly see are ridiculous cabinet choices, pushback will remain (as it has always been) against the two parties stronger than ever. Republicans, struggling to make an unconventional, unpredictable man the key to following the now-fleeting Republican ideal, will go to any means necessary to make sure their party can remain in power, even if it means compromising the legitimacy of the government they are trying to control.

Another member of the JSA, Nikolay Galtsev, junior, talked about the Democratic reaction to the recent obstruction, and what that presents in future debates.

“Democrats will promote free speech and discourse,” Galtsev said. “I feel because of this, the silencing will backfire. There’s a difference between constructive discourse and unproductive comments.”

Galtsev personally believes the use of the rule in this situation may be questionable.

“If it was applied more discriminately then it would be in the bounds of reason,” Galtsev said. “This rule hasn’t been applied to anyone else, so it’s not justified. She was just reading a letter, and it’s never really been common procedure.”

Regarding future trends within the Senate, Bishop also believes that, since the rule has penalized Warren, it may begin a new narrative towards the numerous debates regarding the vetting and new regulations permitted by the Trump administration.

“I believe that the usage of the rule opens up the dangerous prospect of censorship within our Congress,” Bishop said.  “As the leaders of our nation are making policy decisions that impact our lives, members of Congress need to be able to be open and honest with their discourse, be it positive or negative. Rule 19 provides an avenue for censorship that makes me and many others uncomfortable.”

As cabinet hearings for the Trump administration continue, Democratic pushback similar to Warren’s remains inevitable. What will matter most in the upcoming weeks is upholding the legitimacy of laws for their intended purpose, while remembering that what may seem as a large divide in the Senate now will only widen if unwarranted tactics or pleas are used to undermine the opposing party’s legitimacy.

“Congress has a deep divide between the two parties for which blame lies on both sides.” Bishop said. “In order to have civil, respectful discourse on both sides, we need our representatives to be willing to listen, compromise and come to work willing to be and engage in bipartisan work.”