Prairie Lights: Defense of Daines aims low, falls flat

In 1856, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks savagely beat Sen. Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, in the Senate chamber. There was no Rule 19 then. Three days earlier, Sumner had referred to another senator as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal.” So the rule is a good idea, even if it was wielded clumsily by Sen. Steve Daines.

By Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

I know my colleague David Crisp has already written about Sen. Steve Daines’ role in silencing Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the floor of the Senate, but David’s piece was published on Wednesday.

Ed Kemmick

That same day, state Rep. Jeff Essmann of Billings, chairman of the Montana Republican Party, also wrote about the Daines-Warren incident in an op-ed for the Billings Gazette. Essmann’s piece was so crowded with misstatements and misleading information that it demands a response.

The jumping-off point for Essmann’s guest editorial was a column by Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick, published on Feb. 9, in which Ehrlick characterized Daines’ actions as “shameful” and “un-American,” among other things.

But Essmann did not write to accuse Ehrlick of hyperbole. Instead, he spent half of his op-ed making the bizarre claim that Daines was right in silencing Warren because “partisan gridlock” is ruining the country.

“The real issue here,” Essmann wrote, “is whether Washington begins to work for the American people or remains stuck in partisan gridlock. In November, the American people spoke out loud and clear for a new direction in Washington, one where their government works for the people and not the other way around. Montanans and millions of other Americans chose Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States.”

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s try.

First, if the “real issue” is partisan gridlock, why invoke Senate Rule 19, barring senators, on the floor of the Senate, from imputing to another senator “any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator”?

If the Democrats really were engaging in delaying tactics during the confirmation process and there was no procedural way to fight those tactics, why is it honorable to invoke an entirely separate, rarely used rule to get the job done?

Any reasonable interpretation of Rule 19 is that it was intended to keep floor debates civil and peaceful. But the occasion was not a debate between senators. The occasion was consideration of having Sen. Jeff Sessions leave the Senate to join Trump’s cabinet as attorney general.

Ehrlick was surely right when he wrote that Warren should have been “given the broadest latitude for speaking freely because no stones should be left unturned when it comes to having as much power as is given an attorney general.”

Next is Essmann’s statement that the American people, in the recent election, “spoke out loud and clear for a new direction in Washington.” Considering that Hillary Clinton won 48 percent of the popular vote to Donald Trump’s 45.9 percent, I would argue that Trump’s mandate was rather muted and muddy.

Then there is Essmann’s contention that American voters want a government that “works for the people and not the other way around.” But one reason this confirmation process has dragged on is that so many of Trump’s nominees are billionaires with financial entanglements that reach into every corner of society.

If there was ever a time for careful deliberation and close scrutiny of Cabinet nominees, this is the year. We do need to make sure that Trump’s people intend to work for us and not their own business interests. That should not be a partisan issue.

I also found it interesting that Rule 19 specifically deals with imputing unworthy motives to a senator. Essmann is not bound by that rule, but to say, as he did, that Warren was “trashing the integrity of another senator to promote herself, her book and her political ambitions,” is to trash her integrity and to make claims that he cannot begin to prove.

A bit later he says that the Senate is governed by rules. “Rules that keep the U.S. Senate from becoming a middle-school playground where name calling is the norm.”

That argument would carry some weight if Essmann—or Daines or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—had been a fraction as critical of Donald Trump’s vile, juvenile outbursts as they were of Warren.

Two days before Daines silenced Warren, Trump, speaking to a gathering of sheriffs in Texas, was told of a Texas state lawmaker who was opposed to seizing the assets of drug dealers until they had been convicted—a fairly conservative, constitutional stance.

Trump’s response? “Who is the state senator? Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career.”

Trump the tweeter has shattered every rule of decency during his short time in office, but this threat to destroy the career of a principled state legislator was shocking even from Trump.

Did Essmann have anything to say about that? Not that I know of, but in the last paragraph of his op-ed he wrote: “We need leadership in Washington. … Montanans and Americans voted for that leadership in November.”

If the middle-schooler-in-chief is the kind of leader people wanted, and, seeing him in action, continue to want, a little indecorum on the floor of the Senate would seem to be the least of our worries.

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.