The Unique History Behind 5 Rules Every U.S. Senator Needs to Follow

Martin Falbisoner / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Martin Falbisoner / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Martin Falbisoner / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Soon, a new crop of senators will make their way to Washington to help run America. Some may even want to brighten up their Senate desks with a nice vase of flowers. Except that’s not allowed. And if they want to quench their thirst, they'll find their beverage options severely limited by a decades-old precedent. It’s just part of the many peculiarities of life in the U.S. Senate. Here's the history behind five rules every senator needs to follow.

1. Senators can only drink water or milk on the Senate floor.

Vice President Spiro Agnew (left), Senator Dirksen (middle), and President Richard Nixon (right).
Vice President Spiro Agnew (left), Senator Dirksen (middle), and President Richard Nixon (right). / National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In January 2020, the internet was abuzz over a bizarre Senate rule—that senators were allowed to drink milk and water on the Senate floor, but nothing else. NPR discussed the issue with Senate historian emeritus Don Ritchie, who explained that while the Senate has relatively few rules, it has quite a lot of precedents, and those precedents are covered in “Riddick's Senate Procedure,” which proclaims, “Senate rules do not prohibit a Senator from sipping milk during his speech.”

The origin of this statement goes back to 1966, when Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois asked the presiding officer if it was against the Senate rules to have a page boy run to a restaurant and bring a senator milk. The presiding officer said it wasn’t, and a new rule was born. Some argue against the extent and formality of the rule—during his 24-hour-plus filibuster in 1957, Strom Thurmond was given a glass of orange juice and no one complained—but the government definitely doesn’t provide anything other than still or sparkling water. If a Senator wants anything else, they have to provide their own.

2. Senators can only make two speeches per "legislative day."

You might think that one joy of being a senator is being able to go on about whatever subject you want, whenever you want. And you can! According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), with a few exceptions, senators who have been recognized “cannot be forced to cede the floor, or even be interrupted” [PDF]. But that doesn’t mean you can always talk. The Senate’s Rule XIX specifies, “no Senator shall speak more than twice upon any one question in debate on the same legislative day without leave of the Senate, which shall be determined without debate.” The CRS notes that “[this] provision, commonly called the two-speech rule, limits each Senator to making two speeches per day, however long each speech may be, on each debatable question the Senate considers. A Senator who has made two speeches on a single question becomes ineligible to be recognized for another speech on the same question on the same day.”

And even more annoyingly, a day isn’t a day in the world of the Senate. The rule specifies “legislative day,” not calendar days, and a legislative day essentially lasts from adjournment to adjournment. At the end of a calendar day, the Senate often recesses rather than adjourns so that they don’t need to follow the rules required at the start of a new legislative day [PDF]. These rules include the dreaded “morning hour,” where the Senate floor becomes home to various other businesses that sometimes serve little purpose other than to waste everyone's time.

In 1980, the quirks of these rules meant that a legislative day that began in January didn't end until June because they recessed day to day. Since the two-speech rule applies to legislative days, not calendar days, the CRS says this is one way of fighting filibusters [PDF]. The theory goes that you let the filibustering Senators keep talking until everyone runs out of their two speeches and then business can continue with an effectively silenced opposition (though in practice Senators can get around this by adding new "debatable questions" to the issue at hand).

3. Senators can't insult their colleagues.

Senator Benjamin Tillman circa 1905.
Senator Benjamin Tillman circa 1905. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Rule XIX also states that “No Senator in debate shall ... impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” The rule dates back to 1902, which The New York Times described as “The great year for [Senatorial] fracases.”

In that year, South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman was on the Senate floor discussing a bill while fellow South Carolinian Senator John McLaurin was out of the room. According to the Senate Historical Office, Tillman used the opportunity to blast his fellow senator for changing his position due to “improper influences.” McLaurin soon heard of this and went to the Senate Chamber, where he proclaimed, “I now say that that statement is a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie!” The Senate Record says that following that statement “the two Senators met in a personal encounter.” In the words of a 1907 telling, though, “Senator Tillman was seen to leap from his chair, to literally climb over Senator Teller, who sat between the two South Carolinians, and to spring like a panther upon the speaker.”

In June, Senator Beveridge of Indiana accused Texan Senator Bailey of making “an unwarranted attack upon an upright public servant,” according to a 1907 account. Bailey viewed those as fighting words, and after the Senate adjourned and most everyone had left, Bailey approached Beveridge and ... stories differ. One version claims Bailey tried to strangle Beveridge until they were separated by the few Senators still there, while Beveridge claimed that Bailey tried to hit him but was prevented by the other Senators. Either way, in August 1902, the new rules were adopted.

4. Smoking has been banned in the Senate for over 100 years, but snuff is probably OK.

According to the Rules of the Senate, “no smoking shall be permitted at any time on the floor of the Senate.” That in and of itself isn’t odd—smoking bans are everywhere—but what is a bit more peculiar is that the ban came into force in 1914, decades before smoke-free public spaces started becoming commonplace. Over a decade after his brawl with McLaurin, Benjamin Tillman was trying to be healthier. He had suffered strokes in 1908 and 1910, and though he had regained some of his health, he could no longer tolerate tobacco smoke, explaining, “Senators who enjoy smoking and feel obliged to do it can retire to the cloakrooms ... but I have to leave the chamber, and that infringes on my rights as a senator.”

While Senators didn’t smoke in public sessions, the tobacco was whipped out during executive sessions. According to the Senate Historical Office, Tillman was able to get non-smokers on board, and “[the] majority of smokers ... responded in the Senate's best collegial tradition. They saw no reason why an old and sick senator should be driven from the chamber, his state deprived of its full and active representation, merely for the gratification of ‘a very great pleasure.’ In this spirit, the Senate adopted Tillman's resolution.” Even after Tillman’s death, smoking remained forbidden on the Senate floor.

Despite the ban on smoking, snuff (a non-smoking form of tobacco) has a much more complicated history. According to Isaac Bassett—who was employed by the Senate in various roles from 1831 to 1895—when Millard Fillmore was vice president, he had a snuffbox on his table that was so popular, he complained, “I cannot understand what is going on in the Senate on account of the conversation of senators who come here to get a pinch of snuff.” Eventually, two snuffboxes were added, one on each side of the Senate. By the 1880s, snuff became passé—but the boxes remained and became a perpetual joke about how slowly the Senate moves. In 1911, it was said the snuff boxes stayed because “it is a tradition, and the only way it could be passed into history would be to remove the boxes surreptitiously.”

Thirty-three years later, TIME magazine quoted Senator Charles Andrews as saying, “You know in the Senate we still keep the old snuffbox right up there where it's been for more than 80 years, with a fresh supply of snuff, though nobody ever dips into it ... Well, our legislative system is about as anachronistic.” As recently as 1997, The New York Times claimed that while modern Senators didn’t take snuff, the occasional page tried it.

At some point, the replenishment stopped. In 2000, Robert Byrd said that he had recently checked if the snuffboxes had any contents and they were empty, though Politico has commented that, theoretically, Senators can still take snuff.

5. Senators (mostly) can't bring flowers onto the Senate floor.

The U.S. Senate Chamber circa 1873.
The U.S. Senate Chamber circa 1873. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Around the start of the 20th century, one of the great customs was the Senate’s increasingly ridiculous flower displays, often at the beginning of a session. In 1893, The New York Times declared, “The proceedings were dull, but the flowers were bright and fragrant, and in profusion ... [the] high-water mark was reached when a small boy lugged in a basket of flowers bigger than himself and hoisted it to the top of Senator McPherson’s desk. When the Senator took his seat, he was lost to the sight of all except those sitting behind and beside him. By standing erect he could just manage to see over the top of it.” Seven years later, the scene was even more elaborate—one senator “had piles of orchids, roses, carnations and ferns in front of him,” while Senator Hanna had a potted rose bush so large it required two pages to haul in.

Today, however, the Senate is a very drab place, thanks to a 1905 rule that proclaims, “the Sergeant at Arms is instructed not to permit flowers to be brought into the Senate Chamber.” There were a few reasons for the rule—it took over an hour to clean everything up, these were gifts from friends and constituents who could sometimes hardly afford the displays, and also ... it made it obvious who the cool kids were. In 1893, The New York Times reported, “There were few Senators who escaped the deluge of flowers. Those who did must have thought themselves decidedly out of fashion.”

But the most immediate motivation happened in 1905. To celebrate his renomination for the senate, Senator Julius Caesar Burrows of Michigan was given a map of his state made of flowers—with the lakes and waterways being represented by mirrors—and surrounded by roses, orchids, and carnations. All accounts agree it was spectacular, but other Senators felt that this floral one-upmanship needed to be stopped.

So, according to a 1905 article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, a group of Senators from the Committee on Rules decided to stop the flower tradition and enlisted Henry Cabot Lodge to introduce the anti-flower resolution as their recommendation. It was done in such secrecy that the Democrat and Chronicle reported none of the other Senators even realized what was happening until it was too late. The resolution was adopted, and a vase of flowers the President pro tempore kept on his desk was removed. Today, flowers are occasionally allowed following the death of a Senator, but the elaborate displays are consigned to history.