Magazine | March 6, 2017, Issue

Sensitive Senate

Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Capitol Hill. (Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)

Here, I feel compelled to rise in defense of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Or, more precisely, I rise to defend the ability of any politician, even a squawking socialist demagogue, to have her say on the floor of Congress.

In a widely covered recent kerfuffle, Warren was said to have been “silenced” by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell after violating the institution’s rules of decorum — igniting widespread rending of garments and a slew of catchy hashtags across the Twitterverse.

Warren was in the midst of assailing fellow senator Jeff Sessions, the president’s nominee for attorney general, when she was told to knock it off. The former regulatory czarina persisted and continued reading a Coretta Scott King letter likening Sessions to a modern-day Bull Connor. To put an end to it, McConnell invoked the super-secret Rule 19, which prohibits members from taking to the floor and “directly or indirectly by any form of words imput[ing] to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming of a Senator.”

My question: Why should the feelings of the powerful be spared in pursuit of the truth? What if a senator has engaged in conduct unworthy or unbecoming of his office? To make my point and avoid impugning the character of any sitting elected official, I’ll use a fictitious politician . . . let’s call this person “Chris Murphy, the junior United States senator from the State of Connecticut.” What if “Chris Murphy” were nothing more than an authoritarian popinjay whose entire career was a thinly veiled effort to weaken the document he’d sworn to protect? Isn’t it then the duty of his peers to impute this unworthy or unbecoming motive to him?

Republicans argue that maintaining civility is a test of national character and a hallmark of a durable republic. “Turn on the news and watch these parliaments around the world where people throw chairs at each other, and punches, and ask yourself how does that make you feel about those countries?” Republican Marco Rubio asked. “It doesn’t give you a lot of confidence about those countries.”

Well, it depends.

In 1856, anti-slavery Republican Charles Sumner of Massachusetts famously accused Stephen Douglas of Illinois of being a “noisome, squat, and nameless animal.” Of North Carolina’s Andrew Butler, who was suffering a speech impediment because of a stroke, Sumner said, “He cannot open his mouth but out there flies a blunder.” No one stopped the irascible lawmaker from deploying these attacks. Well, I mean until Preston Brooks, a Democratic representative from South Carolina and relative of Butler’s, stopped him two days later by beating him within an of inch of life with a walking cane.

This incident is what everyone seems to bring up whenever congressional incivility is mentioned. Many consider it symbolic of the breakdown of discourse that made politics untenable and the Civil War inevitable. But perhaps it wasn’t immoral to call out those who supported the idea of human chattel. And perhaps the nation got a sense of what civility meant to those who did.

We’ve got our own problems, of course, yet we’re nowhere close to that kind of animosity. So it doesn’t hurt to be skeptical about institutions that arbitrarily use sweeping rules regarding “civility” to police rhetoric. To Senator Rubio, I say that many autocrats enact laws of civility to insulate the powerful from censure, as well.

You may recall, for instance, that when the Tea Party was first gaining political currency in Washington and the nation was immersed in a conversation about civility, House Democrats sent out copies of Section 370 of the House Rules and Manual to remind the GOP that many topics were off the table.

Referring to officials as “our half-baked nitwits handling foreign affairs” (no, I didn’t make that up), or to government as “something hated, something oppressive,” or to the presidential message as a “disgrace to the country,” or to alleged “sexual misconduct on the president’s part” was all permitted.

On the other hand, Democrats had forbidden describing the president’s veto of a bill as “cowardly” and charging that the president was “intellectually dishonest” or a “liar” or a “hypocrite.”

That puts some potentially important topics off limits.

In his Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States, Thomas Jefferson asks members to avoid “hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering” while others members are speaking. No standing up or interrupting. No walking across the chamber or any other discourteous action that might distract the person addressing the Senate body.

So don’t spit on your coworkers or yell “You lie!” as they’re giving a speech. But do not regulate speech. We can’t be so brittle a citizenry that we’re unable to handle a raucous debate regarding the future of the country — especially on the floor of our lawmaking institutions.

None of this is to say that Sessions is a racist. It is to argue that Sessions is a big boy and can handle criticism. Senators are, of course, free to institute any rules of decorum they please. Norms of courteousness make for healthy debate and a functioning legislative branch. Still, attempts to quiet, subdue, and bring “civility” to America have almost always been incognito attempts to chill speech, undermine debate, and protect the powerful from criticism. This is what worries me. Even when it comes to squawking socialist demagogues.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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