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Kavanaugh Proceedings Drive a Senate Once Governed by Decorum Into Rancor

The nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has exposed just how far the Senate has drifted from the rules of decorum that once elevated senatorial prerogative over party, leaving behind the kind of smash-mouth partisan politics that have long dominated the unruly House.

Senate rules dating back to Thomas Jefferson mandate that lawmakers refer to each other by state and title — “my good friend, the senator from California” — and forbid members from questioning motives, maligning a home state or imputing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” Senators are not even supposed to read a newspaper while another member of the body is speaking on the chamber floor....

“Jefferson’s argument was that politics were always going to be contentious, emotional, divisive, so to have any cool, reflective debate under those circumstances, you had to have rules to operate under some sort of decorum,” said Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate’s historian emeritus.

There have been obvious and famous exceptions that make present circumstances appear civil. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts abolitionist, was caned in the chamber by a pro-slavery House member from South Carolina.

In 1954, senators voted to condemn one of their own, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, for contempt for flouting the body’s norms. Notably, their measure sidestepped McCarthy’s divisive tactics in smearing supposed communists coming before his committee, the crux of the issue, in favor of his offenses against the Senate itself.

There was discussion of a rules breach as recently as 2015, when Senator Ted Cruz, the hard-charging Texas Republican, accused Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, of telling “a flat-out lie” on the Senate floor amid a debate about the Export-Import Bank. In a sign of the times, Mr. Cruz went on conservative talk radio afterward rather than apologizing for the breach.

But by and large, Jefferson’s rules have served their purpose, Mr. Ritchie said. Even during the most heated debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the most divisive legislative periods in the modern Senate, senators drew a distinction between political differences and ad hominem attacks, said John Stewart, who served as Senator Hubert Humphrey’s top legislative aide during the debate over that legislation and other hallmark bills of the period.

Mr. Stewart recounted a fiery debate between Mr. Humphrey, who was tasked with advancing the Civil Rights Act, and Senator Absalom Willis Robertson, a pro-segregation Democrat from Virginia. When it was over, he said, Mr. Robertson crossed the Senate floor to stick his confederate battle flag pin on Mr. Humphrey’s lapel — a compliment for a debate well conducted. The two men walked off the floor arm in arm to drink bourbon in Mr. Robertson’s hideaway office.

Read entire article at NYT