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What Robert Byrd Thought of Calling Colleagues Liars

Byrd said that until 1995, he had never heard a senator accuse colleagues of lying on the floor. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Byrd said that until 1995, he had never heard a senator accuse colleagues of lying on the floor. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

“The decorum in the Senate has deteriorated, and political partisanship has run rife, and when the American people see and hear such intellectual pemmican as was spewed forth on this floor last Friday, no wonder there is such a growing disrespect for Congress throughout the country.”  

No, that wasn’t a statement in response to last week’s startling floor speech  from Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had lied about renewing the Export-Import Bank. But it did bring back memories of one of the most memorable speeches in Senate history, nearly 20 years ago, another time accusations of lawmaker lying flew in the chamber.  

On Dec. 20, 1995, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., took the floor to deliver an oration on “civility in the Senate.” He dressed down then-Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who is, like Cruz, a 2016 presidential candidate. The previous week, Santorum had said Democrats in the Senate, as well as the Clinton administration, were lying about Republican budget proposals.  

“I have never heard that word used in the Senate before in addressing other senators. I have never heard other senators called liars. I have never heard a senator say that other senators lie,” Byrd said, having already served for 37 years. “The use of such maledicent language on the Senate floor is quite out of place, and to accuse other senators of being liars is to skate on very, very thin ice, indeed.”  

“The bandying about of such words as liar, or lie, can only come from a contumelious lip, and for one, who has been honored by the electorate to serve in the high office of 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 said in a speech mixing history and biblical references.  

In the speech, provided by the Senate Historical Office in response to a question about decorum, Byrd discussed the debate from a decade before over whether the Senate should join the House in allowing television cameras to cover floor proceedings, saying the tenor of Santorum’s comments were unprecedented in his lengthy tenure.  

“The American people have every right to think that we are just a miserable lot of bickering juveniles, and I have come to be sorry that television is here, when we make such a spectacle of ourselves. When we accuse our colleagues of lying — I have never done that. I have never heard it done in this Senate before,” Byrd said.  

“Clay and John Randolph fought a duel over less than that. Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton for less than that. When we accuse our colleagues of lying and deliver ourselves of reckless imprecations and vengeful maledictions against the president of the United States, and against other senators, it is no wonder … that good men and women who have served honorably and long in this body are saying they have had enough!”  


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