Feb 23,2007 00:00
Nothing like it has happened since pre-Civil War days - but the incident left an unforgettable blot. On May 19, 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner of
Three days later
Contemporary reports described Southern senators nearby as failing to intervene - some even smiling at what they saw. Sumner's injuries disabled him for three years, almost blinding one eye. But "Bully" Brooks became a Southern hero. He received scores of canes, plus a gold-handled cowhide whip intended for use on other abolitionists. And a
Then, as now, members of either house are permitted access to the opposite chamber without challenge - a custom rooted, I suppose, in a small-D democratic reliance on equality and trust. Excluded from official exchanges is any reference to an "upper" or "lower" house. Senators and representatives receive the same salary. One overwhelming difference, of course, is that the House member holds a seat for two years at a time, while a senator is comfortably ensconced for six.
Beyond this, of course, is the Senate's exclusive role in such matters as confirming executive department appointees and the judiciary, treaty ratification and the Senate's designation as a court of impeachment. Such tasks inevitably have added luster to the now 100-member body originally patterned on
And while I shrink from comparisons that might seem odious, it may be noted that House members often announce their departure to run for the Senate. Yet only one ex-senator of my memory sought and won election to the House -
Often at loggerheads, the two houses remain unfailingly polite. House Rule XIV discourages references to the Senate except as "the other body." While it's OK to describe Senate actions in a neutral way, critical comment targeting individual senators is out of order.
The Senate has no written rule on comity, leaving matters of deportment to what it assumes to be the gentlemanly inclination of its individual members.
All of the forgoing serves as groundwork for an interesting development of recent days - a possibly short-lived role reversal in our national legislature. Distinguished orators of the U.S. Senate (aka The Greatest Deliberative Body on Earth) found themselves temporarily immobilized - silenced because leaders couldn't agree on how to debate the most important issue facing us today: the
The familiar five-minute limitation on House speeches enabled nearly 400 members to be heard during the week's discussion - an interesting contrast to unlimited talk prevailing in that "other body."
Some of the Senate's full-throated orators - including its customary cadre of presidential aspirants - might view the five-minute House rule with scorn. In which case - well, let's acknowledge that a number of past messages that we all think important were conveyed within an equivalent time frame.
And don't overlook Gen. Anthony McAuliffe's terse but memorable response to the Germans' surrender demand at
That corresponds roughly to what voters were saying about the
And as for the once Greatest Deliberative Body on Earth - Ha!