Archive for the 'Senator Jeff Sessions' Category

Speech Ethics

February 13, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

The Senate’s invocation of Rule 19 against Senator Warren could not have been more curiously timed. Supposedly concerned to uphold senatorial debate standards, to keep out the nasty stuff, Senate Republicans disqualified Warren from further debate on the Sessions nomination because she read from Coretta Scott King’s 1986 statement opposing Mr. Sessions’ elevation to the bench. Meanwhile, the President routinely tweets out abuse of political adversaries, in the courts or (as in the case of John McCain) in the Congress.

Of course, the President is not bound by the Congressional rules and traditions. But that is the interesting question: if there are standards to be applied to democratic debate, especially to the remarks of senior elected officials, why should those standards be limited to legislative speech? And, if extended to executive branch speech, how?

It might be thought that standards of this kind are significant only in the management of a deliberative body: their function could simply be to avert fist fights on “the floor,” where debate takes place, or, short of violence, to keep order. There is more to them than just this functional administrative purpose. When the Senate censured Joe McCarthy in 1954, the politics were complex, but the Resolution noted his verbal abuse of adversaries. It cited his accusations that the Senate was convening a “lynch-party” against him, that a senior Member directing the Select Committee censure inquiry was “cowardly,” and that the Committee was acting as “attorneys-in-fact” for the Communist Party. The Senate applied the severe penalty of censure in part because McCarthy’s vicious speech violated “senatorial ethics” and "tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."

This goal of protecting against institutional disrepute has been reflected for years in the ethics codes of both the House and the Senate.  See, e.g. S. Res. 338, 88th Cong., 2d. Sess. (1964]; House Rule XXIII Cl. 1 (“A Member, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, officer, or employee of the House shall behave at all times in a manner that shall reflect creditably on the House.”) Members engaged in abusive and irresponsible speech are not only disregarding some housekeeping regulation, like a prohibition against bringing their dinners into the chambers: They are presumptively acting in violation of their personal ethical obligations. There is no reason why reckless, vituperative speech by executive branch officials would not bring dishonor and discredit to that branch of the Government.

The Attorney General is often said to be the Cabinet officer whose responsibilities require a special degree of independence from presidential control. This is not new ground. Even President Washington envisioned the chief legal officer of the executive branch as a "skilled neutral expositor of the law.” Frederick A.O Schwarz and Aziz Z. Huq, Unchecked and Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror 191 (2007). In more recent times, partly as a result of Bobby Kennedy’s service as Attorney General in his brother’s Administration, and then of the troubles that followed from Richard Nixon’s choice for that post of his law partner and campaign chair John Mitchell, the pressure on the AG to establish an acceptable level of independence within an Administration has intensified.

There remain practical and theoretical limits to that neutrality. The AG is answerable to the President and is required like other Cabinet officers to pay attention to presidential policy priorities. There are, however, careful judgments to be made: norms that survive in one form or another, from Administration to Administration, that help keep the federal law enforcement apparatus from being wholly annexed to the political purposes of the West Wing.

Whether these norms have been properly tended to and enforced is never going to be the subject of agreement. Each party out of power has reasons--and some times defensible reasons-- to question an Administration’s adherence to norms. This is healthy: it is one way that norms survive, because with whatever degree of sincerity, and whether on the offensive or in self-defense, everyone claims that they care about them. Norms depend vitally on the simple and repeated declaration that they exist and will be upheld. So it helps to reinforce, and enforce, the norms when Democrats complain about the deficient independence of a Republican AG, and Republicans take up the charge at the time of a Democratic Administration, and each stoutly stands behind the necessity of an appropriate measure of DOJ independence.

This all requires alertness to anything that could be new in an Administration’s articulation of the role of its AG. And what White House senior adviser Steve Bannon has had to say about the role of Senator Jeff Sessions appears to be new.