Last night, Senator and vestigial backbone of the Democratic Party, Elizabeth Warren, got up to filibuster the impending confirmation of one Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Sessions is President Trump’s pick for Attorney General which in any other case would be unusual for Trump. I mean, Sessions attended law school at an accredited university, practiced law in Alabama, was a U.S. District Attorney and the Attorney General for Alabama before becoming a senator and would otherwise seem immensely qualified to hold the office. All of which, one would think, would DIS-qualify him to head the Justice Department under Trump, the same man who nominated a brain surgeon to run HUD, Rick “Oops” Perry to oversee our nuclear arsenal, and Betsy DeVos, who knows so little about public schools she believes the greatest threat to them are bears, to become the Secretary of Education.
So why the filibuster? It might be because Sessions had failed in 1986 to be appointed as a judge to the U.S. District Court due in part to his prosecution of civil rights workers known as the “Marion 3” who he erroneously concluded were committing voting fraud. Perhaps it was part of the culture of the senate back then: In order to become one, you must first be killed by one. Actually, I think that’s vampires.
One of the ways in which Sessions’ transgressions were brought to light back then was by a letter written by Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr., who had at that point had about 20 years of blood, sweat, and tears on her “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit!” sign. King wrote the letter to then head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Strom Thurmond, the Republican/former Democrat who switched parties in 1964 after the passage of the Voting Rights Act which, I’m sure, was merely a coincidence. Yet that letter, sent to arguably one of the most racists Senators in American history convinced the Judiciary committee that Sessions had:
“…marginal qualifications who lacks judicial temperament. … A nominee who is hostile, hostile to civil rights organisations [sic] and their causes.”
So when looking for debate as to whether or not Senator Sessions was fit to hold the highest law office in the land, Senator Warren took to the floor to read the same letter that had disqualified him for the objectively lower office of federal judge over 30 years ago. That was until Mitch McConnell, box turtle and protector of the high-bar of senate decorum, stood up to Warren’s obstructionist preaching of factual information by calling up rules of the senate, specifically Rule XIX, Section 2, for a little dirty talk:
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.
According to McConnell, by reading the letter that said Sessions had “used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens,” Warren had “impugned the motives and conduct of [Sen. Sessions].” Just… real quick; can someone please remind me which party is supposed to be full of people so sensitive to insults that conservatives came up with the uber-catchy nickname of “snowflake?” Are you sure? ‘Cause these guys just quoted a senate rule that protects against hurt feelings.
But Rule 19 isn’t just for protecting senator’s delicate sensibilities. There’s all sorts of useful sections in there! Like this one, that says:
“[A]ll debate shall be germane and confined to the specific question then pending before the Senate.”
That may have been nice to bring up back in 2013, when Senator Ted Cruz spend part of his 21 hour filibuster on Obamacare to read Green Eggs & Ham. Though, in fairness, eating green eggs isn’t considered a pre-existing condition, and if I can’t eat spoiled food and expect to suckle at the government teat, why bother?
Or if Warren was going to be shut down by Rule 19, why not go full-bore and violate Section 5 which says after being called to order, whatever words she said would be written down and read to the Senate? That way she could have had McConnell read aloud that Jeff Sessions looks like a pale, elfish gopher with the redden hue of a life-time alcoholic, yet still looks so boyish he’d need to crawl up on the apple crate to look pappy in the eye like a man when he’s talking to you!
But what’s terrifying about the enforcement of this rule is that it effectively means is that ANY senator who would be up for any future confirmation would be exempt from having any negative statements used against them. For example, were McConnell himself up for a position in the Trump administration other than democratic hair-clog and Vichy-esque legitimizer, no one in the senate could mention his penchant for fresh leaf lettuce and crunchy carrots, or his inability to roll over should he find himself on his shell. I mean back. A position he should get accustomed to, because if there’s one thing Trump has made clear, it’s that he doesn’t wait for consent.
While it’s fun to poke at the withering constitutions of McConnell and Sessions, the reality is McConnell used an obscure rule of the senate to silence debate of Sessions’ appointment to the highest law office in the land, not because it impugns the character of the senator, but because they already know what it says. And when the former Justice Department finds systemic racism in places like Ferguson and Chicago, when people of color make up 60% of prison populations and face beatings, shootings, and strangulation at the hands of those sworn to protect them, when conservatives call Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization, Coretta King’s letter isn’t seen as a condemnation of Jeff Sessions, it’s seen as a resume.