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'There haven't been any duels lately': Unspooling the arcane rules and rituals of the U.S. Senate chamber

The U.S. Senate has been in the spotlight these past two weeks as the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump unfolds. We take a closer look at some of the unusual traditions and rules that surround this American institution with former Senate historian Don Ritchie.

Former Senate historian Don Ritchie gives us a peek inside 'world's greatest deliberative body'

Other than the official Senate video feed of the impeachment trial, cameras are not allowed inside the U.S. Senate chamber so artists have been sketching the proceedings. Here, House manager Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democrats' leading prosecutor, presents arguments last Wednesday. (Dana Verkouteren/The Associated Press)

All eyes have been on the U.S. Senate these past two weeks for the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump.

One hundred U.S. senators have been glued to their seats inside the carpeted, two-storey Senate chamber in the north wing of the Capitol building for long days stretching more than nine hours, with no electronics and limited breaks.

As we await the next phase of the impeachment proceedings — the question period, which begins Wednesday — we take a look at some of the history and quirky traditions of the U.S. Senate.

'World's greatest deliberative body'

The chamber itself is rectangular, but the senators' small wooden desks are arranged in a semi-circle. A gallery encircles the chamber, with several rows of seats for the press and the public, who can look down on the proceedings below.

Senators drink mostly water or milk while inside the chamber, and communication happens by way of notes on paper transported by one of the ever-present pages.

While the current chamber dates back to 1859, the institution itself is more than 230 years old and has been referred to as the "world's greatest deliberative body" by more than one presenter during these impeachment proceedings.

It's a staid but hallowed place that still stands on most of its arcane rules. One of the guardians of those rules and traditions used to be Don Ritchie, who worked as the Senate historian for 40 years.

CBC News spoke to Ritchie amid the ongoing impeachment trial about drinks, decorum and drama inside the Senate. 

A place to 'cool it down' amid heated politics

When Thomas Jefferson established the rules of the U.S. Senate in the 18th century, he hoped they would be establishing decorum and space for rational debate, says former Senate historian Don Ritchie. 2:05

Many of the rules still followed today were created by Thomas Jefferson when he was vice-president in the last decade of the 18th century.

"He looked at the British Parliament, and he looked at other parliaments, and tried to figure out what would work.… He decided that, you know, politics are always going to be emotional and heated, and there's always going to be a lot of rhetoric and complaints and arguments, and you needed to cool it down.

"He thought that by establishing decorum in the Senate, that you could have a rational debate. And so his rules manual said, well, you can't eat in the chamber; you can't read a newspaper in the chamber; you can't talk while another senator is speaking."

Ritchie takes the long view when evaluating how the decorum of the Senate fits with the heated, partisan rhetoric of today's politics.

"There haven't been any duels lately; no one's pulled a pistol on another senator on the Senate floor, which they've done in the past. But clearly, politics does get very heated. And right now, we're in a very polarized political frame of mind that makes it very difficult to compromise and find any kind of middle ground."

Got milk?

There is no specific ban on certain types of drinks in the U.S. Senate chamber, but senators have to ask permission if they want to consumer something other than milk or water, says former Senate historian Don Ritchie. 2:09

A lot has been written this past week and half about the drinking habits of those inside the Senate chamber, but Ritchie says the story behind why senators drink mostly water — and sometimes milk — evolved organically.

"The rules didn't specifically say, 'Well, you can drink orange juice' or 'You can drink milk.' But during filibusters and during various events, senators have asked permission to drink a glass of milk," he said. "And, of course, you're standing up and speaking for 14 hours, you need something more than a glass of water occasionally. One senator had an eggnog while he was on the floor."

When such a request is put forward, a precedent is established, Ritchie says, and from then on, senators can continue to ask for those same beverages. 

Surprisingly, he says, no one has historically requested coffee. "I'm afraid if they did, we'd see coffee cups all over the place — because the senators are dependent on coffee, like everyone else."

In the absence of caffeine, some senators like to put their own spin on H2O.

"Actually, in the cloakrooms, the pages have lists of the water preferences of the senators. So if a senator says, 'Come over here,' and says, 'I need a glass of water,' they run back and check, does he want still water, does she want sparkling water, ice cubes or lemon slices or whatever."

What does an ex-Senate historian think of impeachment?

Former Senate historian Don Ritchie says the authors of the U.S. Constitution didn't want to be specific when they came up with the definition of impeachment. 0:50

In contrast to the heated rhetoric, bluster and high-minded oratory that we've heard in the Senate chamber this week, Ritchie's take on the proceedings is pretty Zen.

"Impeachment is a very amorphous situation. The authors of the constitution weren't quite sure why somebody might be impeached.… They decided they didn't want to be too specific because they couldn't anticipate everything. They came up with the phrase 'high crimes and misdemeanours,' which they picked up from British parliamentary practice, and that covers a multitude of sins."

Ritchie says he's not too bothered by how messy of a process this trial has been.

"Sometimes, the threat of impeachment is a pretty powerful thing itself. But it is so significant, it's so important, that it's not a problem, I think, if it fails," he said.

"It's a process that needs to be thought out very seriously on each occasion."

In this artist sketch, Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders, flanked by Sen. Ben Cardina and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, listens during the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump. Each of the senators has a small glass of water on their desk that gets refilled frequently by the pages in the chamber. (Dana Verkouteren/The Associated Press)

About the Author

Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.

With files from Kazi Stastna

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