the Arcane Senate Rule Used to Silence Elizabeth Warren

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.”

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.

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