The United States Senate has a reputation as the home of the “adults” in legislative circles. Readers who share an unhealthy obsession with American politics and watch far more CSPAN than is good for them are already familiar with the process. Combatants from the opposing parties will show up on Sunday morning talk shows, in town hall meetings, or at tea parties and hurl thinly veiled barbs at one another.
But when you move these same officials to the floor of the upper chamber a nearly miraculous transformation takes place.They refer to each other in glowing terms such as “distinguished senator” and “esteemed colleague.” The real currency in the Senate is time, and the members frequently struggle to outdo each other with their generosity, surrendering the “remainder of their time” to the next honored speaker, even if it’s the same person they were sniping at on Meet the Press the previous weekend.
But last week the wheels briefly flew off of the collegiality cart when newly minted Senator Al Franken temporarily took the gavel to preside over the health care debate. Joe Lieberman — frequently a recent target of progressive ire — was concluding his remarks when he was abruptly informed that his allotted ten minutes had expired. Using a procedure common to all members, Senator Lieberman requested unanimous consent for “a moment” to wrap up his statement. Franken, in his capacity as the “senator from Minnesota,” took this opportunity to grab a few headlines with two simple words: “I object.”
The resulting media circus would lead one to believe that the former Saturday Night Live star had thrown a custard pie from the bench. And it was a rather startling breach of normal protocol, but hardly the first time that decorum has taken a backseat on that floor.
Back in 1954, the Senate was witness to a series of shouting matches between Senator William Knowland (R-Calif) and Senator Wayne Morse (I-Oregon) during the debate over President Eisenhower’s so-called “Atom Bill.” The argument dragged on for thirteen days, burning up more than 160 hours of what the Rome News-Tribune charitably called “acrimonious debate.” This too concerned a major transformation in American policy which generated heated debate across the nation, moving nuclear power into the hands of the private energy industry.