“The precedents of the Senate are just as significant as the rules of the Senate.”
Former Senate Parliamentarian Floyd Riddick describes to Senate historian Donald Ritchie how procedural decisions made in the Senate become de facto rules of the Senate.
RITCHIE: I'd like to move from a discussion of the rules of the Senate to the precedents of the Senate. You've been involved with both sides, and there really are two volumes on each of these, and two traditions. We talked earlier about your first job with the parliamentarian's office, which was to read through Mr. Watkins' compilation of precedents, and then to come up with a publication of them. I wonder if you might describe just what the need was for the publication of the precedents, and what the difference is between the precedents and the rules of the Senate, at least for the layman to understand.
RIDDICK: As I said earlier, I think, I finally decided to accept the assistant parliamentarianship because I had been assured that I would be permitted to write the volume on Senate Procedure. I always had that interest in mind. The precedents of the Senate are just as significant as the rules of the Senate. The rules are very vague in some regards, and the practices of the Senate pursuant to those rules are developed and established, and as they are established they become the rules of the Senate until the Senate should reverse this procedure.
Hildenbrand: We had no problems with anything until it got to the point where the House decided that impeachment proceedings were in order. Then we suddenly realized that, hey, if that happens, we become the court of last resort, and it's coming over here, and we better decided now how are we going to handle it, what are we going to do? We met with the Sergeant-at-Arms and began to talk about lighting in the Chamber. We studied previous impeachment trials in the Senate to see how they conducted them. We got the language that was necessary, the procedures that would be required when the House brought over its article of impeachment. We did all that. We were ready to go. If the House had impeached him and he had not resigned, we were ready to conduct the trial. We had met with [Warren] Burger, and we were ready to go. We didn't want to, but we were ready to do it as the duty of the Senate. But we were sure hoping it went away someplace.
Ritchie: As a head counter, what was your feeling about how it would have turned out if there had been a vote in the Senate?
To illustrate what I mean, the rule on roll call votes says "a roll call vote may not be interrupted." Well, what does that mean? In general language that means one thing, but in practical day-to-day operations in the Senate it means an entirely different thing. When does a roll call vote begin? Does it begin when the chair directs the clerk to call the roll? Does it begin when the chair directs the clerk to call the roll and the clerk calls the first name? Or does it begin when the chair directs the clerk to call the roll and the clerk calls names until a senator responds? Obviously, the latter is the case. Now, it's like a mosaic picture. Every little detail has to be fitted in so you get a complete detailed picture.
This becomes very important, because if a senator is debating an issue and at the last split second he decides he wants to offer another amendment, or he wants to talk further before they vote, he's got to know when his last split second is available to him to get recognition and do this. Well, this is just one illustration of how you have to fill out the gaps of general instructions or general rules that are maybe ambiguous or maybe not detailed enough, which almost certainly could not, when they were drafted, be anticipated enough to take care of every possible situation. So the rules provide or allow an established procedure that when the Senate is operating contrary to a rule, a senator can make a point of order that the procedure is not in accordance with the rules, and the chair will rule.
Of course, that too presents a case sometimes, because when can a senator make a point of order? We've got also established precedents that if a senator has been recognized and is speaking, even though you think he is going to do something contrary to the rules, you cannot interrupt him to make a point of order except by his consent, or after he has concluded his remarks. If a senator in his speech refers offensively to any state of the Union or reflects adversely on a senator, or says something unbecoming a senator, while you can't make a point of order you can rise and say: "Mr. President, I call for the regular order," without being recognized. That calls a halt there. But if you are trying to make a point of order on some action that the Senate is proposing to take, it has been established that you may not make such a point of order until the senator having the floor yields for that purpose or gives up the floor. No right of the Senate is lost on such grounds because as long as the senator is speaking the Senate can't take any action anyhow. So you still will have time to make your point of order before that action is taken and prohibit it if it's not in accordance with the rules. Anytime that a point of order is made, and the chair rules, if no appeal is taken from the decision of the chair, that becomes the order of the day for the Senate, and remains just as binding on the Senate in future procedure as the rules themselves where they are specific. If an appeal is taken, and the decision of the chair is sustained, that too becomes binding on the Senate. But if an appeal is taken, and the chair is reversed, the decision of the Senate becomes binding on the Senate. This is how precedents are established.