It is often noted there are two kinds of members in Congress: the showhorses and the workhorses. That’s probably an oversimplification, since most members consider themselves workhorses, but with a flair for show. Politics, after all, is a lot like show business, with public attention and appreciation focused on those actors who are able to entertain and project their roles in a convincing and effective manner. On Broadway, the payoff is in audience acclaim and good reviews. In Congress, it is in media attention and re-election.
However, it seems that more and more members are opting for the show ring over the work plough as Congress becomes increasingly polarized and legislative work is less valued and rewarded. This becomes more evident as presidential and congressional elections loom and members ramp up their publicity machines, both on and off the Hill, to set themselves apart from the rest. Frequently this involves running for Congress by running against it, especially when the public mood is strongly anti-Washington, as is now the case. It’s an old incumbent trick for hanging onto incumbency.
When then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky delivered a major floor address in January 2014 on how he would change things if Republicans regained control of the body, he lamented that “the Senate seems more like a campaign studio than a serious legislative body.” While he was reflecting on what the Senate had become in recent years, he may also have been anticipating even more of the same with the presidential elections over the horizon and some of his colleagues already expressing interest in running. Today, four sitting Republican senators have declared their candidacies: Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul from McConnell’s home state of Kentucky.
With a crowded Republican field of 16 candidates, the pressure is on each to outdo at least six others in public support to make the initial cut for the televised primary debates. The Senate presidential candidates have obviously been looking for ways to take advantage of their lofty perches on the Hill through floor amendments and speeches that tap into hot button issues appealing to their party’s base.
However, when Cruz took to the Senate floor on July 24 and directly accused his own majority leader of lying about his intentions on a particular bill, he went well beyond using the Senate chamber as a campaign studio for political messaging. He turned it into a seething pit of personal recrimination.
No one directly challenged Cruz at the time for violating the Senate rule that prohibits members from impugning “the conduct or motive” of “any other senator.” The presiding officer could have issued an immediate ruling and forced Cruz to sit down and not speak for the remainder of the day. However, Cruz could then have appealed the ruling, triggering a separate debate and vote, thereby further fueling his staged martyr narrative. Instead, the applicable Senate rule was read in its entirety by the Senate’s president pro tempore, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, two days later at the outset of a rare Sunday session — a fitting scripture to begin the day’s proceedings.
One need not speculate on Cruz’s motives; he made them quite clear publicly when he said he was out to bring down the “Washington cartel,” presumably including leaders of his own party. While members are free to criticize their colleagues and leaders in personal terms outside the chamber, the rules of decorum in debate inside both chambers are as old as Jefferson’s manual and are there to maintain a functioning public body.
Congress purposely prohibits members from personally attacking each other on the floor to steel itself against devolving into ad hominem mayhem. The intentional violation of that central tenet of parliamentary protocol deserves public condemnation.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a congressional fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.
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