The take down that wasn’t: Pelosi and yesterday’s House kerfuffle

Official portrait of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, photographed January 11, 2019.

Late Tuesday afternoon, a rare level of excitement hit the floor of the House of Representatives as members voted on whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., violated a parliamentary precedent in characterizing President Trump’s recent infamous tweets as racist. During debate on House Resolution 489 — a resolution officially condemning Trump’s tweets — Speaker Pelosi argued for passage of the resolution, saying “These comments from the White House are disgraceful and disgusting and the comments are racist.”

This prompted Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., to ask if Speaker Pelosi would like to rephrase or withdraw her comments. When she refused, Collins made a formal request that the speaker’s comments be taken down — a stunning attempted admonishment of a speaker that has not been attempted in 35 years. Chaos ensued, including over an hour of back and forth between Democrats, House leaders and the House parliamentarian; Rep. Emanuel Cleaver abandoning the chair in frustration; and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., declaring his own speaker’s comments out of order. This culminated in a recorded vote as to whether Speaker Pelosi’s comments should be taken down from the official record.


So, what exactly happened? 

Save yourself some time and read this gorgeous thread by professor Josh Chafetz on what precedent was broken during Tuesday’s kerfuffle. The short version: There is a standing English precedent against speaking out against the King. Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice extends the interpretation of that ruling to the American context by writing that “personal abuse, innuendo, or ridicule of the President is not permitted.” A series of rulings over time — many of which have resulted from member remarks about Trump since he has taken office — has furthered the interpretation of that precedent. Specifically, comments saying that the president has “made a bigoted or racist statement” have been ruled out of order and violations of the House’s decorum rules.

Rep. Collins used this precedent to object to Speaker Pelosi’s comments and to hold a vote on whether the comments should be taken down and stricken from the congressional record. Ultimately, after conferring with House leaders and parliamentarians, Rep. Hoyer ruled the comments out of order.

To recap the maddening irony of House parliamentary procedure: The House was debating a resolution that would officially condemn the president for making racist comments, but Pelosi’s declaring the president a racist on the House floor was out of bounds.

This is where the fun started. The ruling of the chair — in this case, Rep. Hoyer’s ruling that Speaker Pelosi’s comments were out of order — can be overturned by a majority vote. And that’s exactly what happened. On a near party-line vote of 232-190 (Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., joined the Democrats), the House voted down the measure to have the comments stricken. Speaker Pelosi’s comments stood, and after a subsequent vote for the House continue the debate on the condemnation resolution, floor proceedings continued.

The chamber finally finished where it intended to start: a recorded vote on House Resolution 489. The resolution passed 240-187, with four Republicans and one Independent joining all 235 Democrats in condemning the president’s tweets.


The Fallout

Had she lost the vote on her comments, Speaker Pelosi faced only wrist-slap-level sanctions — her words would be taken down and she wouldn’t have been able to speak on the House floor for the remainder of the legislative day (though she still would have been able to vote). That’s it.

Yet symbolically speaking, the vote was a test of her support among a diverse caucus that has shown very public cracks in recent weeks. A losing vote would have required a significant number of Democrats to jump ship and join the GOP side in a public rebuke of their elected leader. Such a result would have been more than embarrassing for Speaker Pelosi and her prospects for leading Democrats into 2020.

Instead, she held the line and didn’t lose a single Democratic vote. And there are likely benefits beyond the public show of party solidarity. For one, there will be a tremendous amount of media attention on the Trump condemnation resolution — even more so after the spectacle that unfolded on Tuesday. The media will explain why Pelosi was challenged and will link the word ‘racist’ with Trump over and over again. Pelosi has already stated that she is proud of the increased coverage of her floor comments, which were likely to be largely ignored or forgotten by the media without the challenge of them being out of order.

Secondly, the votes in favor of condemning Trump’s tweets and reinstating Speaker Pelosi’s comments showed a unified caucus — at least when it comes to opposing the president. Recent stories have pit Speaker Pelosi and moderate Democrats against the progressive wing of the caucus. Democrats unified against the president’s tweets directed at their own — both in the media and on the House floor — changes the narrative highlighting a fractured caucus heading into an election year.

Finally, Tuesday’s fun will force moderate Republicans to explain why they came out against the president’s tweets one day, only to vote against condemning them on the House floor the next. Democrats will surely paint such a flip-flop by moderate GOP members as the latest example of them kowtowing to Trump and choosing party over country.

In the end, Democrats got the official rebuke of Trump and turned the page on their internal party fissures. They are likely happy with both results.

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Topics: Legislative Procedure