Pelosi’s ruled out of order, Democratic chaos, and a historic moment

Source: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

The other week, the House passed a resolution denouncing President Trump’s racist tweets. But what stole some headlines were the events surrounding Speaker Pelosi. While reading the title of the resolution during debate, Pelosi called the President’s remarks racist. In so doing, she violated House rules and precedents by personally attacking the President during debate, and Republicans made a point of order to take down her words. Democrats scrambled, calling an hour and a half recess to plot their next move, and eventually ruled her words out of order but refused to take them down on a party line vote. They later passed the resolution condemning the president, with all Democrats in favor as well as four Republicans and Justin Amash (I-MI).

It was a confusing episode, in which the rules and actions of the House were poorly understood and described, and ultimately, in the media’s zeal to cover a dramatic leadership spat, an important moment in American history was overlooked.


What happened?

House debate occurs not in a vacuum but in a highly regulated environment where rules and an enormous set of precedents govern what can and cannot be said during debate. One of those rules prohibits members from engaging in “personality.” In brief, directly questioning the character of another member or the president is forbidden. Specifically calling someone a liar, racist, bigot, con, etc., is a violation of House rules and subject to a point of order. Members who engage in “unparliamentary language” have their words taken down and are barred from floor debate for the rest of the day.

These rules were put in place to create distance between members during debate. They serve as a buffer, requiring members to address the speaker rather than each other. They cannot directly mention or impugn the character of their colleagues. In the absence of such rules, debate often became heated and sometimes resulted in physical altercations on the House floor.

In the case of last week’s resolution condemning the President’s remarks as racist, House rules made the debate extremely precarious. Simply reading the title of the resolution constituted engaging in “personality,” and was therefore subject to a point of order, which Rep. Collins (R-GA) made.

In other words, the House found itself in a situation where it had made in order a resolution that members could debate but could not directly read.


Why the floor kerfuffle?

Given the sanctions that accompany unparliamentary language, members often check in advance with the House Parliamentarian’s office to determine whether a speech they intend to give will violate House rules. On the floor, Pelosi claimed she did so and was given the ok. Regardless, when she read the title of the resolution, she was indeed in violation of House rules, and the Parliamentarian recommended ruling against her. This in turn is what caused Rep. Cleaver to “abandon the chair,” which I’m pretty sure is not a real motion, sending the House into “chaos.”

A lot was made of the hour-plus recess that followed. Many attributed it to internal Democratic drama and caucus chaos.

What was more likely happening was procedural planning. Democrats had several options: they could rule the Speaker out of order, allow her words, create a new precedent allowing personalities regarding racism, or some combination of those. Each of those tactics had consequences and leaders likely consulted with the House Parliamentarian to discuss the options and their potential effects.

The most obvious choice was changing the precedent. After the Speaker pro tem ruled Speaker Pelosi out of order, Democrats could have overturned the ruling, establishing a new precedent that would govern future debate. This would have made Speaker Pelosi’s words in order, but it also would have led to a lot of unintended consequences. Chief among them, allowing direct, personal and caustic debate potentially makes the House a more dangerous place, as it was in our history when threats and acts of violence in House debate were more frequent.

Ultimately, Democrats maintained the precedent, ruling Speaker Pelosi out of order, but voted to retain her words and prohibit punishment. That they accomplished this on a unified party line vote suggests the lengthy recess was not about marshalling unity among Democrats but rather allowing leaders to consult with the Parliamentarian about their next steps.


Why it matters

What may have appeared like standard leadership politicking and political hedging over a non-binding resolution overlooks an important historic moment.

Until last week, the House had never officially condemned presidential remarks as racist. Nor had the House ever voted to retain words breaching decorum for framing a president’s remarks as racist. This is not the first time a member of government said something racist or bigoted. In an institution with over 200 years of immersion in racism and racist debate, regulating debate in this way is no small feat.

The fact the House twice voted to address racist language should not be overlooked. They were small steps that will leave many frustrated and dissatisfied, but institutions change slowly. Their reform is not easy, organic, or automatic. These are fictions of history. In an institution seemingly locked in centuries-old modes of operating, the House took a small step forward toward addressing contemporary language and understandings of race. We should hope it is the first of many

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Topics: Legislative Procedure