Senator Jeff Flake’s blistering diatribe against the Trump administration in his final Senate speech is still a hot topic on social media, but for all the wrong reasons. Rather than respond to Flake’s specific criticisms, Trump defenders have taken to pointing out the fact that the chamber was almost entirely empty while Flake was speaking, aided by several inane news stories breaking this so-called scoop.
“Dick Durbin Only Senator To Stay For Jeff Flake’s Anti-Trump Floor Speech,” blared The Daily Caller.
“Peacocking Jeff Flake Delivers His ‘Big Speech’ To Nearly Empty Senate Chamber,” screamed The Daily Wire.
“Flake rips Trump before nearly empty Senate chamber,” wailed WND.com
And on and on it goes.
It’s pathetic that nobody has the cojones to address what Flake actually said, so, instead, they try to discredit him based on his speech attendance. But what makes this such an anemic response to Flake is that the Senate chamber is always empty when Senators are giving speeches.
The Senate chamber is always empty
That’s right – it’s always empty. Always, always, always.
If you doubt that, take a moment to watch C-Span 2 whenever a senator is holding forth on the issues of the day. Look around. See all the empty desks? Those are where the other senators are not sitting. That will be true no matter how consequential the speech being given is.
Years and years ago, I interned for Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and one of my responsibilities was leading his constituents on tours of the Capitol, which invariably included a stop in the Senate Visitor’s Gallery, which, incidentally, is almost always empty, too. People were often shocked to discover a senator orating into the emptiness, but I explained that this was standard practice.
“What a waste of time!” one woman grumbled.
Well, yes and no. It’s certainly not effective in persuading other senators to change their points of view. But wouldn’t be an even greater waste of a senator’s time to spend his or her whole day sitting and listening to other senators grandstanding? While one senator is giving a speech, the other 99 are meeting with constituents, holding committee hearings, or doing actual work.
Actually, make that 98 other Senators. There are at least two senators in the chamber whenever speeches are given, and one is sitting in the Senate President’s chair. The Vice President is the constitutional President of the Senate, but the veep has better things to do than listen to speeches all day long. So low-ranking senators of the majority party take turns playing president in his stead, and they fill their time playing on their phones or doing crossword puzzles.
The senator who spends the most time in the president’s chair wins the non-coveted “Golden Gavel Award,” which is known colloquially among Senate staffers as the “Iron Butt Award.” Most substitute presidents would rather be anywhere but there.
The fact is that speeches are made for the benefit of the voters, not the senators. Yes, only Duck Durbin was physically present for the speech, but millions of Americans heard what Jeff Flake had to say. On the whole, it looks as if Flake was tremendously effective if the only counter to his argument is to gin up a fantasy where a full Senate chamber sits with rapt attention as their colleagues hold court.
(Image of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake giving a speech on President Trump via screenshot)