The Old Senate Rule Prompted By a Fistfight

America got a civics lesson in 2017, when Senate Republicans used an obscure rule to shut down a speech by Senator Elizabeth Warren that criticized Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for Attorney General. The mechanism used to silence Warren is known as Rule 19, an obscure and seldom invoked provision in the Rules of the Senate. The rule states that senators may not ‘‘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.’’ This little known Senate rule came about as the result of a fistfight. On Feb. 22, 1902, Senator John McLaurin declared that Senator Bill Tillman was guilty of “a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie” after Tillman suggested that McLaurin was corrupt and had sold his vote in exchange for favors. Tillman subsequently punched McLaurin in the face. Less than a week after the fight, the Senate officially censured both McLaurin and Tillman. The Senate also added the language of Rule 19 that survives today. The rule has rarely been invoked in the modern day era, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked it against Warren, noting that she had previously been warned and given an explanation of Rule 19, and yet she persisted. As a result, Warren was barred from speaking on the floor debate over Session’s nomination.