Special Issue: Argumentation and the U.S. Senate

By Kane, Thomas | Argumentation and Advocacy, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview
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Special Issue: Argumentation and the U.S. Senate

Kane, Thomas, Argumentation and Advocacy

This special issue examines the practices of argumentation in the United States Senate. The three essays are largely concerned with the Senate as a forum where arguments are made within the cultural practices, norms and constraints of place.

While changes in the Senate evolve, they do so slowly and in their own unique manner. There remains a sanctifying quality to the institution, selfishly protected by the one hundred men and women who hold membership in what they collectively regard as the most exclusive legislative body in the world.

Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania recently discovered the price of violating Senate custom and rhetorical decorum. On December 15, 1995, while speaking against President Clinton's budget plan, he accused both Clinton and some of his Senate colleagues of speaking less than the truth, and did so in the harshest of terms. He attacked motives, used descriptive terms such as "bald-faced untruths" and "systematic disinformation campaigns" and "revisionist history" in the course of his speech (Congressional Record, December 15, 1995, S18718-18721). How can they "make the statement that we have tax cuts targeted for the wealthy, when they know that is a lie," he asked about his colleagues (CR, S18718). The question was not consistent with Senate tradition.

Senator Barbara Boxer of California, who spoke immediately after Santorum, took offense at his use of language, reminded him of "the sanctity of this institution" and invited him to review his remarks in the Congressional Record: "Perhaps when he reads those remarks, he will understand the difference between making a point in a way that is disrespectful and making a point in a way that is respectful" (S18721).

Senator Robert Bennett of Utah, who spoke after Boxer, supported Santorum's position on the budget, but distanced himself from Santorum's language: "I will not use words like 'lie.' I will not use 'despicable' and 'disgraceful.' I came over here a little bit angry, but I will not use the word 'anger'" (S18722).

The episode did not end there. Five days later, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who has served in the Senate since 1959 and is its self-appointed historian and defender of tradition, gave a prepared address on civility in the Senate (CR, December 20, 1995, S18964-18967). The speech was largely aimed at Santorum and his nonjudicious use of words in the Senate: "Do we have to resort to such language in this forum? In the past century, such words would be responded to by an invitation to a duel" (S18964).

Byrd related the affront to his own Senatorial history: "In my 37 years in this Senate, I do not recall such insolence, and it is very sad that debate and discourse on the Senate floor have sunk to such a low level" (S18965). After reviewing Santorum's use of the word "lie," Byrd continued: "I have never heard that word used in the Senate before in addressing other Senators. I have never heard other Senators called liars. I have never heard a Senator say that other Senators lie" (S18965).

Byrd next located Santorum in unfavorable space within the traditions of the Senate: "There have been giants in this Senate, and I have seen some of them. Little did I know when I came here that I would live to see pygmies stride like colossuses while marveling, like Aesop's fly, sitting on the axle of a chariot, 'My, what a dust I do raise!'" (S18966).

Finally, in what became an unrelenting attack on Santorum, Byrd establishes the violation of the Senate as place: "This is not a forum that was created for the purpose of advancing one's political career or one's political party" (S18966). He reminds members how fortunate they were "to have been selected by the American people to actively participate as their representatives in this miraculous experiment in freedom which has set the world afire with hope" (S18967).

Byrd's address was followed by several others who, with largely spontaneous remarks, praised Senator Byrd's defense of Senate decorum.

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Special Issue: Argumentation and the U.S. Senate


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