By David Crisp/Last Best News
Steve Daines, the freshman U.S. senator from Montana who sits on the back-benchers’ back bench, got a rare taste of notoriety last week. He posted a video of his 15 seconds of fame on his Facebook page, so he must have been proud of it, but the episode showed Daines’ political weakness, not his strength.
Daines was presiding over the Senate when, in concert with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he blocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren from finishing a speech against Sen. Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as attorney general. He and McConnell convicted Warren of violating Rule 19, which says that “no Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
Their decision to block Warren’s speech was upheld by a party-line vote of the Senate. A University of Miami political scientist could find evidence of only two similar votes in Senate history, the last in 1952.
What’s worse, Warren’s remarks weren’t aimed at Sessions in his capacity as a senator. They instead invoked accusations of racism that were used to deny Sessions a federal judge’s job back in 1986.
To have failed to reconsider those accusations at his new confirmation hearing would have been dereliction of the Senate’s duty. No matter how nice Warren might have tried to be about it, there is just no way to avoid imputing unworthy conduct to someone who lost a federal job because of racism.
Daines’ action drew more than 2,000 comments on his Facebook page. If you have the patience to read them all, perhaps you can find one praising his decision. I did not and could not.
Small protests against him went on in Montana, including one at his Missoula office, where members of the activist group Missoula Rises read aloud the letter from Coretta Scott King that Warren was quoting when she was ordered to sit down. Protesters tried to confront him at the Bozeman airport, but he walked away.
This is titillating but inconsequential stuff. Warren’s speech wasn’t going to change any votes. And the Senate rule is not a bad thing in itself. The elaborate courtesies senators extend to one another, insincere though they may be, serve a useful purpose.
We don’t want brawls breaking out in the Capitol, such as happened in South Africa’s parliament just last week. The daily virtual brawls in social media are bad enough; the U.S. Senate should set a better example.
David Crisp is a longtime Billings journalist and journalism professor, now a columnist for Last Best News in Billings.