11:21 AM

On this week's edition of "I DON'T KNOW WHAT WE'RE YELLING ABOUT," we're talking Rule 19 of the Rules of the Senate.

Channeling my favorite law professor, I'll start by recommending we "read the language...," so here it is:

Rule 19 prohibits a senator from "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."

Ummmmm... okay, so still as confused as I am? Who's imputing whom? What's this unbecoming business? What the heck is going on here?

Well, #TBT back to the founding of our country and our two-chambered legislative branch. The Senate has always maintained a living list of rules modeled after Thomas Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice. In short, the Senate has it's own outline of Robert's Rule (the rules that guide formal business meetings, minutes, etc.) that also includes social no-nos for publicly elected officials - aka no spitting on Senators that are speaking (yes, this is a real Senate rule. I know, I know, classy AF).

Fast forward to 1902 and two old white dudes (I'm shocked, really), got in a fistfight - not a joke - on the Senate floor. The fight started when the older of the two old white dudes was upset that the younger of the two, his protege, was engaging in discussions with members of the other party. OWD #1  (Senator Benjamin Tillman) gave a speech berating OWD #2 (Senator John McLaurin). When OWD #2 heard about the contents of the speech, he ran to the floor, and began screaming through the chamber that OWD #1was spreading "malicious and deliberate lie[s]."

Cue the fists.

So, given that our legislature was one barrel short of a bar fight, the Senate passed parts II & III of Rule 19 in an attempt to keep a little decorum on the floor. The rule was intended to prevent senators from using the floor for personal, improper discussion. In other words, the U.S. Government had to put a rule in place to prevent the Senate from looking like the jungle fight scene in the cinematic classic Mean Girls.

The rule is arcane to say the least, and invocations of it are few-and-far between.

Fast-forward to February 2017 - when Senate Republicans use Rule 19 as the basis for shutting down Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) from speaking.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), said that Warren's reading of two letters, one by late Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and one by the late Coretta Scott King, crossed the line. The invocation of the rule was based on the criticism of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as exercising racial bias and being a "disgrace" to the DOJ.

Soooo.... did she break the rule or not?

Well, that depends on who you ask.

The circumstances under which the rule was passed was intended to prevent "fighting words" in the most literal sense; that is to say, that inflammatory language was to be, best-as-possible, kept out of senate discussions. Here, however, Senator Sessions' character was being debated relative to his nomination to serve as United States Attorney General. If Rule 19, on it's face, were to be applied here, that would mean that any language by any senator that didn't indicate he was qualified would could be deemed inflammatory.

So, if you're asking me - which I'm assuming you are because you're on my slice of the internet - NO, Senator Elizabeth Warren did not violate Rule 19, and she was improperly silenced on the Senate floor.

The most iconic sentiment from the whole incident?  Senate Majority Leader McConnell's statement on the incident that not only described Tuesday night's session, but the history of women in general.

"She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

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  1. LOVE everything about this!

  2. Great explanation, I appreciate it.