Director of the U.S. Senate Historical Office speaks about restraining bad manners in the Senate at the Columbia ForumWhen a staunchly anti-slavery senator from Massachusetts denounced some of his opponents on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1858, he was beaten with a cane for his efforts.
No one's been physically attacked in the chambers of America's most august legislative body in a long time. But there's a disturbing decline in civility in the Senate today that's mirrored in the nation's sharp political split, said Richard Baker, head of the U.S. Senate Historical Office, who shared some of the body's high and low points in "Blood on the Carpet: Restraining bad manners in the United States Senate" in Wednesday's Columbia Forum presentation at the Duncan Law Seafood Consumer Center.
The Senate Historical Office provides the "institutional memory" of the congressional body, maintaining records on speeches, votes and other Senate business, and provides information on important dates and events. It also conducts oral history interviews with Senate members and keeps biographical information on past senators. The office is also helping assemble the exhibits for the new Senate visitor center set to open in 2006.
Tom Bennett - The Daily Astorian
U.S. Senate Historian Richard Baker shared accounts of beatings, nasty insults and other poor behavior by some of America's lawmakers in "Restraining bad manners in the United States Senate" at Wednesday's Columbia Forum.Even from the beginning, Senate leaders found it necessary to enforce certain levels of decorum, Baker said. Thomas Jefferson, when he was vice-president and presided over the chamber, wrote up a list of rules prohibiting "hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another" while another senator spoke - rules just as appropriate for a kindergarten classroom, he said.
But the Senate has also been considered the more courteous, more deliberative of the two houses of Congress, where the rights of minority views are protected with such tools as the filibuster, and where members of different parties can work together.
"There is a premium on civility in the Senate," Baker said.
That image took a blow, literally, in 1858 when Preston Brooks marched into the chamber and attacked Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane for insults Sumner made about Andrew Butler, a fellow senator and relative of Brooks, during a floor speech.
The attack on Sumner, though it gained headlines across the country, prompted little action in the Senate itself. The incident occurred as the nation was splitting apart over the slavery issue and the Senate, fearful of the growing rancor, was "walking on eggshells," Baker said.
"People got the message that all of the sudden, our United States Senate, a place for ordered debate, had gone down the drain," he said.
The same sort of reluctance to act can be seen today in the creation of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, a task that normally should be the work of a congressional committee, Baker said.
"If you want a genuine bipartisan investigation, is that going to happen today? No," he said. "There is the sense that even today, members of the Senate are walking on eggshells again."
The last documented physical fight in the Senate took place more than a century ago, but there's a disturbing partisan split in the chamber today that's without precedent, Baker said. One small example is the decision by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to go to South Dakota to campaign for the opponent of his counterpart, Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Baker said he and his staff were unable to find any reference in the historical record to a Senate leader working to help oust another.
"It's emblematic of the relations in the Senate that one member can go out and campaign against another," he said.
But Senate members have also shown rare cooperation on some very divisive issues, including the impeachment effort against President Bill Clinton. Daschle, then-Majority Leader Trent Lott and other leading members of both parties gathered in the old Senate chamber - what Baker called the "shrine to the golden age of the Senate" - and worked out a process to handle the explosive issue fairly and speedily, he said.
Technology has influenced the Senate, Baker said. The invention of the telegraph in the 1840s meant that a lawmaker's words could be in the newspapers the next day, which prompted senators to stop speaking to fellow members and began speechifying for the bigger audience beyond.
In the 1950s, airline travel made trips home easier, and helped spell the end of the friendly weekend card games and other informal get-togethers that provided the senators an informal way to mix and get to know each other better, he said.
Along with fisticuffs and partisan bickering, the Senate has also produced some inspiring moments, Baker said. One was recorded by former Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, who served there for 30 years.
In 1967, as a newly elected member, he was rising to make his maiden speech, a rite of passage for new senators, when the majority leader, Richard Russell, began walking out of the chamber. Hatfield related how Russell, realizing that Hatfield was about to give his first address, stopped in his tracks, went back to his seat, and gave his full attention to the young Oregon lawmaker.
"When he finished, Russell came up to him and said 'that was a fine speech, Sen. Hatfield, that was a fine speech,'" Baker said. "Those are the small things you don't see on C-SPAN, and they give me a great deal of hope."