The Story Behind the Arcane Senate Rule Used to Silence Elizabeth Warren

It apparently started with a fistfight more than 100 years ago.

February 8, 2017, 5:49 PM

— -- The dramatic episode Tuesday night, during which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell silenced Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s speech against attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, shone a light on an arcane Senate statute: Rule 19.

McConnell, R-Ky., accused the Massachusetts senator of violating a provision in the rule that states “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.”

He claimed that her quoting various 1986 statements from other people on Sen. Sessions -- including the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who called the Alabama Republican a “disgrace,” and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who wrote that Sessions “chill[ed] the free exercise of the vote by black citizens” -- was a violation of that provision of the obscure Senate rule, forcing the ultimate rebuke in the Senate floor: to stop talking and sit down.

So, What Is Rule 19?

The rule, which former Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin said he referred to as the “shut up and sit down rule,” addresses various aspects of Senate debate decorum, including a requirement that the presiding officer first recognize a senator who wishes to speak before he or she can do so.

The Senate added Section 2 of Rule 19, which pertains to speaking ill of another sitting senator, in 1902, in response to a literal fistfight that broke out on the Senate floor. Then-Sen. John McLaurin of South Carolina raced into the Senate chamber and claimed that fellow South Carolinian Sen. Ben Tillman had told a “willful, malicious and deliberate lie” about him, according to research from the Senate Historical Office and author Francis Butler Simkins.

The “lie” in question was about Tillman’s criticizing McLaurin for moving closer to the opposing party.

Tillman apparently heard the comment, turned around and punched McLaurin “squarely in the jaw,” according to the Senate Historical Office.

Six days later, the Senate censured both men and added what is now Section 2 to Rule 19.

How Is It Invoked?

It is up to the presiding officer to flag such language and, typically, remind senators of the rule and their potential violation of it before they move to officially censor him or her, according to Frumin, who served 18 years as chief Senate parliamentarian.

For example, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who was acting as the presiding officer Tuesday night when Warren was censured, warned her as she was quoting Kennedy that she might be violating the rule, before officially censuring her after she moved on to quoting King.

“When [Warren] quoted Sen. Kennedy she was warned,” Frumin said. “And I think that that’s perfectly appropriate. That’s a proper way for this to take place.”

The parliamentarian can help the presiding officer make his or her decision about whether to officially accuse a senator of violating it but, Frumin said, it’s completely up to the presiding officer to decide whether to officially “call to order” the senator found in violation of Rule 19.

For his part, Daines, the presiding officer whose regular “shifts” in that role include 6:30 pm to 8 pm on Tuesdays, said his decision to invoke Rule 19 had nothing to do with politics.

“Given the Senate is the world’s greatest deliberative body,” he told ABC News today, “I believe we should have civilized debate.”

How Frequently Is It Enforced?

The short answer is very rarely. One instance widely reported today was in 1979, when then-Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn., called Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., an “idiot” and “devious” in a Senate debate, which Majority Leader Robert Byrd sought to defuse with a handshake.

Frumin said that when he served as parliamentarian, he sought to first allow senators to work out such issues themselves without getting the Senate rulebook involved.

“I would do backflips to avoid enforcing the rule,” he said, adding that he would do everything he could to “lower the temperature” in the room before the presiding officer resorted to Rule 19.

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