When the Framers of our Constitution drafted our nation’s charter roughly 100 years later, they included a clause that is almost identical to its British counterpart. The few shreds of published debate about the clause suggest that the Framers hoped it would preserve open and honest debate in Congress. As James Wilson, a delegate to the constitutional convention and one of George Washington’s first nominees to the Supreme Court, remarked, the “fullest liberty of speech” would enable lawmakers to “discharge the publick trust with firmness and success.” In his Manual of Parliamentary Practice, Thomas Jefferson echoed the same theme, referencing the House of Commons’s letter of protest to King James, which described Parliament’s need to “propound, treat, reason, and bring to conclusion” all “Parliament business.” In other words, the Framers adopted the clause to ensure that members of Congress would not be punished for official legislative actions and could focus on representing the people.
But the clause was never understood to protect members of Congress for anything they might say or do, simply because of the office they held. As Thomas Jefferson explained when describing lawmakers’ immunity from arrest, the Framers wanted to ensure that “the laws shall bind equally on all”—especially “those who make them.” Charles Pinckney, a South Carolina delegate to the constitutional convention, said the same: The Framers “expressly limited” Congress’s privileges, he explained, to make sure that legislatures could not seek “shelter from the operation of laws equally affecting all.”
For this reason, the Framers specifically limited the reach of the Speech or Debate Clause to a lawmaker’s legislative acts. The clause’s meaning is clear from its text itself. Remember that the clause prevents questioning of “any Speech or Debate in either House,” not everywhere. By limiting the clause’s protections to statements made in the houses of Congress, the Framers—in Jefferson’s words—ensured that legislators would be protected from questioning only “for things done in the House in a Parliamentary course,” and that this protection would “not exceed the bounds and limits of [a lawmaker’s] place and duty.”