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Curses! A Brief Senate History

Being the world’s greatest deliberative body means occasionally having a vice president drop the F-bomb in your chamber.

It also means, over the course of 200-plus years, that you’ll host the occasional fistfight, a few threats of pistol play, alleged poisoning and one vicious caning — to say nothing of volumes of wild personal insults.

This last category includes the remark made during a debate by Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.), that a colleague had “switched his tongue, and again he fills the Senate with its offensive odor.”

Against competition like this, the vulgarity hurled at Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) by Vice President Cheney on Thursday was tart, but brief and not especially creative.

The Cheney incident unfolded after an annual photo session for Senators in the chamber. According to witnesses, Cheney approached Leahy to protest the Senator’s recent attacks on Cheney for his alleged links to Halliburton, the oil-services giant he headed before being elected vice president.

Leahy responded by charging that Cheney had called him a “bad Catholic” — an apparent reference to GOP allegations that Democrats were unfairly attacking President Bush’s judicial nominees.

To that, Cheney retorted, “F— yourself” or “F— you” or possibly “F— off,” according to various news reports.

Cheney did not explicitly confirm (or, reading between the lines, deny) his use of the expletive, which was uttered while the Senate was not in session.

But in an interview with Fox News Channel on Friday, the vice president charged that Leahy had repeatedly impugned his integrity, and added, “I said what needed to be said. It was long overdue.”

The remark, whatever it was, left some Members scandalized. “I was kind of shocked to hear that kind of language on the floor,” Leahy said afterward.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a past organizer of bipartisan “civility” retreats, told The Associated Press that “it’s as bad as I’ve seen it in my 10 years in Congress,” adding that “the will of the membership is not there to do [the retreats] next year.”

Stewards of the Senate, keenly aware that the chamber is an arena of passions as much as politics, have been engaged in an uphill struggle to preserve its dignity — and the debate within it — since the dawn of the Republic.

“No one is to speak impertinently or beside the question, superfluously or tediously,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the first manual of parliamentary procedure for the Senate, in 1801.

Yet it was perhaps a measure of low expectations that Jefferson felt compelled to add, “No one is to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting.”

Over time, the Senate, like the House, has tended to wield its disciplinary force in instances where the integrity of a Member has been impugned by another — such as when someone has been called a liar or a traitor.

In both chambers, the severest form of punishment for an offending lawmaker is for his or her remarks to be “taken down,” which excludes the Member from participating in debate for the rest of the day.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Center for Public Policy, said attacks on integrity are particularly noxious because they “undermine the premise” upon which debate can occur — that the other side is acting in good faith.

“When you don’t grant the integrity of the other side, you insult the people who elected that person,” said Jamieson, who has studied the issue of civility in the House.

Vulgarity is different, she said. “It offends one’s sense of propriety, but it does not necessarily affect the process of deliberation.”

And by historical standards, Leahy got off easy.

In 1856, a perceived attack on the honor of South Carolina Sen. Andrew Butler (D) prompted the vicious beating of Sen. Charles Sumner as he sat at his desk in the chamber. The attacker was actually Butler’s nephew, Rep. Preston Brooks (D-S.C.), who called the Massachusetts Senator’s famous “Crime on Kansas” speech, delivered only days earlier, “a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

In what was to presage later eras of stubborn partisanship, the ensuing efforts to censure and expel Brooks — by then regarded as a hero in the South — failed in the House on party-line votes.

The tumultuous weeks-long Senate debate over the Missouri Compromise of 1850 also produced its share of calumny and personal attack. One particular agitator, Sen. Henry Foote (D-Miss.), repeatedly baited his colleagues, among them Sen. Thomas Hart Benton (R-Mo.), whom he challenged to “patch up his reputation for courage, now greatly on the wane.”

When, weeks later, the two Senators grappled again over the legacy of Sen. John C. Calhoun (D-S.C.), Benton finally leapt up and charged at Foote, prompting the Mississippian to draw his pistol.

A special Senate committee convened to investigate the incident later absolved Foote of “premeditated use of his weapons,” but scolded the two lawmakers for bringing their personal feud into the chamber.

Ultimately, questions of what is proper or improper to say depend on the standards of the chamber at any given time.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the chamber’s guardian of tradition and occasional scold, took a stab at defining the limits of acceptable dialogue in 1995 during proceedings that led to a government shutdown.

Among other things, Byrd was disturbed by one GOP Senator’s reference to President Bill Clinton as “this guy,” and by the frequently deployed charge that Clinton and the Democrats were “lying” about the true nature of the continuing resolution that was up for debate.

“The bandying about of such words as liar, or lie, can only come from a contumelious lip,” Byrd said. (“Contumelious” means “abusive.”) “And for one, who has been honored by the electorate to serve in the high office of the United States Senator, to engage in such rude language arising from haughtiness and contempt, is to lower himself in the eyes of his peers, and of the American people generally, to the status of a street brawler.”

Byrd added, “Statesmen do not call each other liars or engage in such execrations as fly from pillar to post in this chamber.”