Over at Politico, Glenn Thrush highlights a new ukase from House of Representatives Rules Commitee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter.
Talk about breaking a butterfly on a wheel…..   Instead of allowing his own sense of shame and/or his colleagues’ contumely to deal with one Congressman’s recent unacceptable outburst in the House Chamber during the President’s admittedly tendentious and partisanly provocative health care speech, the Rules Committee has just released a mind numbingly intricately parsed summary of the “approved guidelines for all members to follow during floor debates.”

I suppose that, since the Congressfolks have by now genteelly gerrymandered themselves into what amount to self-perpetuating incumbencies, the logical next step is to squelch criticism by neutering speech.  But aside from the “l” word, or the use of constitutionally freighted phrases like “giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” or crying “fire” in a crowded House, I can’t think of any words —however inappropriate or ugly or over the top— that a democratic legislative body actually bans at anything less than its own peril.

Here is the text of the Chairwoman’s womanslaughter of the English language and the give and take of parliamentary debate:

Decorum in the House and in Committees

Under clause 1(a)(1) of Rule XI, the rules of the House are the rules of its committees as far as applicable. Consequently, Members should comport themselves with the rules of decorum and debate in the House and in Committees specifically with regard to references to the President of the United States as stated in Section 370 of the House Rules and Manual.

As stated in Cannon’s Precedents, on January 27, 1909, the House adopted a report in response to improper references in debate to the President. That report read in part as follows:

“It is… the duty of the House to require its Members in speech or debate to preserve that proper restraint which will permit the House to conduct its business in an orderly manner and without unnecessarily and unduly exciting animosity among its Members or antagonism from those other branches of the Government with which the House is correlated.”

As a guide for debate, it is permissible in debate to challenge the President on matters of policy. The difference is one between political criticism and personally offensive criticism. For example, a Member may assert in debate that an incumbent President is not worthy of re-election, but in doing so should not allude to personal misconduct. By extension, a Member may assert in debate that the House should conduct an inquiry, or that a President should not remain in office.

Under section 370 of the House Rules and Manual it has been held that a Member could:

  • refer to the government as “something hated, something oppressive.”
  • refer to the President as “using legislative or judicial pork.”
  • refer to a Presidential message as a “disgrace to the country.”
  • refer to unnamed officials as “our half-baked nitwits handling foreign affairs.”

Likewise, it has been held that a member could not:

  • call the President a “liar.”
  • call the President a “hypocrite.”
  • describe the President’s veto of a bill as “cowardly.”
  • charge that the President has been “intellectually dishonest.”
  • refer to the President as “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”
  • refer to alleged “sexual misconduct on the President’s part.”

However, the Senate rules on decorum and debate do not prohibit personal references to the President. Senate Rule XIX governing decorum and debate is applied only to fellow Senators and “does not extend to the President, the Vice President, or Administration officials and a Senator cannot be called to order under rule XIX for comments or remarks about them…” (Senate Procedure, p. 741). The Senate rules also provide that Jefferson’s Manual is not part of the Senate rules (Ibid, p.754).

By contrast, the rules of the House specifically provide that Jefferson’s Manual does govern the proceedings of the House where applicable (Clause 1 of Rule XXVIII). Section 370 of Jefferson’s Manual states that the rule in Parliament prohibiting Members from “speak{ing} irreverently or seditiously against the King” has been interpreted to prohibit personal references against the President. In addition, Speakers of the House have consistently reiterated, and the House has voted, to support the proposition that it is not in order in debate to engage in personalities toward the President. The Chair enforces this rule of decorum on his own initiative.

On this morning’s Washington Journal on CSPAN, one of the guests was Jonathan Karp, the editor of Senator Edward Kennedy’s just posthumously published memoir True Compass.  Mr. Karp referred to Senator Kennedy’s sorrow over the lack of civility in the Senate.

A combination of short memories and guilty consciences have led a generation of Democratic politicians and media pundits, bemoaning the loss of congressional civility, to point the finger at Republicans, and to place the date around 1994 when the GOP had the audacity to upset the natural order of things by winning control of both houses of Congress for the first time in donkey’s years.

But, lest we forget, the end of the traditional congressional civility actually occurred several years earlier —on 23 June 1987— when Senator Edward M. Kennedy rose and, after referring to Judge Robert Bork’s “neanderthal views,” expressed his opposition to the Judge’s nomination to the Supreme Court in these memorably uncivil words:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.

This Shrum-penned screed was in the ad hominem tradition of John Kenneth Galbraith’s words written for Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 presidential campaign.  (Stevenson had written to Galbraith at Harvard:  “I want you to write speeches against Nixon.  You have no tendency to be fair.”)

Our nation stands at a fork in the political road.  In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, showing; the land of smash and grab and anything to win.  This is Nixonland.  America is something different.

Of course when liberal lions or admired eggheads make these kinds of memorably bitter personal attacks, they’re given a pass because, after all, it’s only campaign rhetoric; or even praised for making fearless statements of principle.

But words have consequences just as crows have roosts.  And it’s important to remember how things really started.