“No one is to disturb another [person who is speaking] by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another.”
Such was Thomas Jefferson’s suggestion to maintain decorum in the Senate (Next column). That rule is still in effect in the Senate and the House although there are procedural ways to interrupt Members, Members, for the most part, get to make their statements.
Interrupting a speaker, now known as cross talk or over talk, became a strategy to obliterate any message an opponent is making by simply filling the airwaves with a cacophony of noise as both raise their voices and insist on their position to the point that neither is heard or understood. It is a strategy always used just when the other person is making a salient point the opponent doesn’t want you to hear.
The February debate on the Affordable Care Act between Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz had no cross talk and, as such, we heard the position each took on the matter. Sanders reminded us of how bad things were without the healthcare reform the ACA brought and Cruz told us how bad things are because of the ACA. So, without having to persevere hissing, spitting or other interruptions we heard both sides.
If we look back to the early 2000’s and the obliteration of free speech at town hall meetings due to the Tea Party interruptions we can see how damaging such behavior can be to the elected official’s efforts to explain a law or his / her position on that law and to the voter’s interest in getting information on which to base a vote.
Now with all the post-Trump marches going on and the renewed interest among constituents for town meetings where they can get answers there is, again, the risk of no information passing hands due to loud and disrupting attendees. This has to change because Members would have a legitimate reason not to hold town hall meetings; they don’t amount to anything productive.
Most questions coming to those meetings are about the ACA and a constituent with questions should quietly attend those meetings armed with legitimate questions about the law and the Member can then answer those questions. An informed constituent can then decide if the answer is acceptable or ask further questions.That is how it should go because that is why town hall meetings are held; to put you in touch with your elected officials and to do anything else is to be disruptive.
With a new president who shifts positions on matters with little explanation other than the political sculpting of the matter by his numerous surrogates, answers to questions are most important to the voting public. But more so a voter’s roll in the democracy is directly through those Senators and Representatives they put in place to work their will.
There will always be those who disrupt. For the rest of us we serve the democratic process by focusing on the legislation that interests us and that serves the nation and, from knowledge of the issues and legitimate questions, we will exercise a direct role in managing the country.
From the Senate Clerk
February 27, 1801
On a quiet December morning in 1800, a well-dressed gentleman knocked on the door at the Capitol Hill residence of publisher Samuel Smith. When the publisher’s wife, Margaret Bayard Smith, greeted him, she had no idea who he was. But, she liked him at once, “So kind and conciliating were his looks and manners.” Then her husband arrived and introduced her to the vice president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson had come to deliver a manuscript for publication. Mrs. Smith admiringly noted the vice president’s “neat, plain, but elegant handwriting.” Weeks later, on February 27, 1801, Jefferson returned to receive a copy of his newly printed book. It bore the title, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States.
Three years earlier, in 1797, Jefferson had approached his single vice-presidential duty of presiding over the Senate with feelings of inadequacy. John Adams, who had held the job since the Senate’s founding in 1789, knew a great deal about Senate procedure and—of equal importance—about British parliamentary operations. Yet, despite Adams’ knowledge, senators routinely criticized him for his arbitrary and inconsistent parliamentary rulings.
In his first days as vice president, Jefferson decided to compile a manual of legislative procedure as a guide for himself and future presiding officers. He believed that such an authority, distilled largely from ancient books of parliamentary procedure used in the British House of Commons, would minimize senators’ criticism of presiding officers’ rulings, which in those days were not subject to reversal by the full Senate.
Jefferson arranged his manual in fifty-three topical sections, running alphabetically from “Absence” to “Treaties.” He began the section entitled “Order in Debate” with a warning to members based on his own observation of legislative behavior. Even today, his admonition might suitably appear on the wall of any elementary school classroom. “No one is to disturb another [person who is speaking] by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another.”
Although Jefferson’s original manuscript has long since disappeared, a personal printed copy, with notes in his own handwriting, survives at the Library of Congress.
Jefferson’s Manual, with its emphasis on order and decorum, changed the way the Senate of his day operated. Years later, acknowledging Jefferson’s brilliance as a parliamentary scholar, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted his Senate Manual as a partial guide to its own proceedings.
U.S. Congress. Senate. A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States, by Thomas Jefferson. 103rd Cong., 1st sess., 1993. S. Doc. 103-8.
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