Do Senate Speeches Ever Change a Senator’s Mind?

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April 10 2013 3:15 PM

The World’s Most Indifferent Body

Do Senate debates ever change a senator’s mind?

Members of the U.S. Senate sit down to a bipartisan caucus in the Old Senate Chamber on the first day of the 110th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 4, 2007.
Even when the content of floor speeches doesn’t persuade, they can still have major significance

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The Senate has scheduled a vote for Thursday to officially open debate on gun control legislation. Many senators, if not most, have already publicly stated their views on gun control. Do senators ever change their minds because of speeches made during Senate debate?

Yes. Members of Congress have occasionally acknowledged changing their minds during floor debate, although most of those frank admissions came before the modern stigma against flip-flopping. Staunch environmentalist Edmund Muskie, for example, decided to support funding for a nuclear reactor in 1975 after listening to a floor speech by John Pastore of Rhode Island. Speeches about obscure bills tend to have greater effect, because members of Congress may have weakly held views based solely on party affiliation or instructions. During an extraordinary four-day debate in 1960, Sens. Paul Douglas of Illinois and Wayne Morse of Oregon killed a bill involving private access to state-developed water sources. Although the bill sailed through committee with unanimous approval and no debate, Douglas and Morse successfully tarred it on the floor as an unprecedented giveaway of public water to private and corporate landowners. The abrupt change in a large number of votes suggests many senators didn’t fully understand what they had been supporting until Douglas and Morse explained it to them. It’s rare, if not unprecedented, for a senator to change his or her position on a major issue like gun control after hearing a single floor speech.

The Douglas-Morse floor debate didn’t look anything like the dramatic portrayals of historic Senate speeches you see in major motion pictures. There were no nods of approval or gasps, nor the laudatory tapping of canes on the floor. Most of the time, the senators were speaking to an empty chamber. Just because no one is there, however, doesn’t mean no one is listening. Every senator keeps C-Span on in his or her office. They rarely watch themselves, but a staffer reports back on important developments. Before the advent of C-Span, legislators had “squawk-boxes”—intercoms tuned to the floor debate—to keep them current. Before squawk boxes, senators sent staffers to keep detailed notes of speeches. (Some still do this, despite modern technology.)

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Hollywood scenes portraying the old Senate aren’t quite accurate, anyway. Senate attendance was higher during the 18th and 19th centuries not because speakers were more eloquent or legislators more diligent—they simply had nowhere else to go. Before construction of the Russell building in 1909, most senators read, wrote speeches, and corresponded with their constituents from their desks on the Senate floor. They probably paid about only slightly more attention to speeches than modern senators do to C-Span.

Even when the content of floor speeches doesn’t persuade, they can still have major significance. In 1964, for example, Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois rose to announce his support for the Civil Rights Act. By all accounts, Dirksen gave a magnificent speech, popularizing the phrase “an idea whose time has come.” The significance of the speech wasn’t in its eloquence, though. Dirksen had been a fairly muted supporter of civil rights. By loudly proclaiming his position, Dirksen, who was the minority leader at the time, took away some of the cover that other Republicans had relied on in opposing the bill.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer

Explainer thanks Lewis L. Gould of the University of Texas at Austin, Associate Senate Historian Betty Koed, and Frances E. Lee of the University of Maryland.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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