This is all over the news this morning – Elizabeth Warren was ordered silence by McConnell because of statements she made about Jeff Sessions during debate about his selection as Attorney General. I gather that the immediate cause was her reading from a letter from Coretta Scott King from 1986 regarding an earlier debate about Session when he was nominated for a judicial post, although apparently she also cited Edward Kennedy from the same occasion speaking about Sessions.
You can argue at great length about Session himself or Warrens’ choice of citations, but I have a much more basic question that I haven’t seen any of these reports address – why is it alright to shut down what appear to be relevant points during a debate over the appropriateness of a candidate for office? The sort of silencing order imposed on Warren seems grotesquely out of place when you consider that it was imposed during what should be precisely the platform for bringing these points up. It doesn’t matter that she was “warned” not to do so – quoting earlier testimony about the qualities and character of a candidate appears to be just what this session should be about. If you shut down such things because
…then aren’t you effectively disqualifying any negative statements when the subject under consideration is already a Senator? Doesn’t this set a bad precedent?
Again, that she was warned not to do so is irrelevant, as is the argument that she was bringing up too much – she was arguably showing the prepondering sentiment against him, not maliciously “piling on”. It appears clear that Rule 19 was enacted to promote civility among the members of the Senate and to minimize the sort of bad feelings that really did lead, in the past, to literal fistfights on the Floor. But that ought not to be used to prevent the airing of disqualifying testimony.
Or is there something I’m unaware of?
The issue from my point of view is that the reading of Ms. King’s letter was more grandstanding than some sort of honest debate (not that all Senator’s aren’t guilty of such things). The letter is well known to the senators and reading it aloud served no real purpose, but to take diggs at Senator Sessions while she had the microphone. Now certainly you could argue that a non-senator wouldn’t receive such protection, but I think to argue that Senator Warren had her argument stifled is a bit ludicrous. It had the exact effect she was looking for.
As an aside, even if this was against a non-Senator, I think lowly of such tactics (again not claiming this is unique to Warren by any stretch). Basically going “Well, I’m not saying he’s racist, but I’m going to quote the opinion of someone who thinks so” is a pretty weaselly way to make an argument.
I don’t think that was the argument. It seems abundantly clear to me that Warren was saying “I think he’s a racist, and I’m not the only one. Here’s some strong evidence to back that up, from some big guns that felt the same way.” It’s irrelevant that many of those on the floor knew about the letter – it deserved to be articulated.
It all works out for the best. Now everyone is talking about it, the speech is being shared all over Facebook, etc. It’s not like Sessions isn’t getting approved anyway. But now at least more average people might get informed. The Republicans would have been better off letting her speak, but you know, safe spaces.
This is not quite an accurate description of what happened.
Sen. Warren was originally reminded/warned about the rule when she read into the record remarks from Sen. Ted Kennedy from back when Sen. Sessions was up for confirmation as a federal judge. Those remarks from Sen. Kennedy included an assertion (IIRC) that then-Asst. U.S. Attorney Sessions was a “disgrace.” Sen. Warren was at that point on notice that she was not going to be allowed to impugn the motives of a sitting senator.
Having been warned, she then tried to read the remarks of Ms. King, at which point Sen. McConnell moved to have her silenced under Rule XIX.
Sen. Warren could simply have referred to the comments (which were already a part of the Senate record) and pointed out that Sen. Kennedy and Ms. King had felt Sen. Sessions had, in the past, demonstrated characteristics unworthy of an Attorney General. But by insisting on reading those remarks, thereby making them her own remarks, she fell afoul of the rule. And I tend to agree with Sen. McConnell on this one. After all, it’s just a variation of saying, “Now, I would never call John a foul-hearted blackguard, but let’s hear what my good friend Joseph has to say about him…”
I tend to disagree with McConnell. Of course, it’s all political theater. But the rule is intended to ensure civil discourse and was not intended to suppress criticism of a candidate for a cabinet post just because he is, coincidentally, a sitting senator.
I think that McConnell was wrong to do what he did for the reason stated by CookingWithGas above. In the confirmation hearing, Sessions’ role is not Senator, it is Nominee. I think this was a misapplication of the rule.
The first amendment only protects you from the government passing laws that abridge your freedom of speech. Nothing protects you from senate rules that mandate a certain level of decorum. Indeed that is in the constitution too:
Article I, Section 5:
Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two thirds, expel a member.
Again, this is all irrelevant – as I said, it doesn’t matter that she was warned. She ought to be able to make any arguments or case about the candidate without censure. It’s not simply using a past voice as a ventriloquist dummy to call Sessions a bad name – if you read Coretta King’s letter, it is a well-reasoned argument against installing sessions in office, not simple name-calling. And this is what Warren was silenced for reading.
But my main question remains unanswered – Does this mean that the Senate can shut down any discussion of a candidate’s negative points if he/she is a Senator by simply invoking Rule 19? Has this ever happened before?
This. McConnell was technically within the rules. But she was discussing Sessions the nominee, not Sessions the senator. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a sitting senator was nominated for a Cabinet post, and had been convicted of multiple rapes in the past (leave aside the implausibility of such a person being elected to the Senate and nominated to the Cabinet). Does it make sense for the rule to bar discussion of the senator’s past during his confirmation hearings?
We aren’t in disagreement about the 1st part of what you’re saying. You’re just proving my point. She is clearly trying to show that she believes he is a racist, without actually coming out and stating it directly on the floor of the Senate (instead she quotes someone else stating it directly).
If he had been convicted of rape, that would have been a factual statement. No different from “he graduated from Yahoo U with a major in Semantics”. The content of that letter contained significant parts that are clearly opinion. If he had been called a rapist w/o a conviction, that would be different.
If Republicans use this as a weapon against Democrats … then Democrats will use it as a weapon against Republicans … more division, more strife, bit by bit our Federal government becomes more and more paralyzed …
Sen. McConnell was within the letter of Rule XIX … but I believe it was grossly misapplied … but that’s just how the Senate is run … boycotting Kentucky might be our only recourse …
I’m sympathetic to the argument that if you’re being nominated for something, then opinions about you need to be fair game. I assume McConnell was technically within his rights, as the Senate rules were probably not put together with that situation in mind, so no exceptions carved out. But in spirit, I agree that an exception should be made.
Of course, what complicates things is that McConnell doesn’t think Sessions is a rapist, and thinks Warren is acting despicably in calling him one. (I agree with this.) So he is not going to be inclined to go with the spirit of the rules over the letter of the law.