In his racist attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color, Donald Trump violated the norms of civilized public discourse in ways no modern president has come close to doing. And in its effort to condemn the president’s virulent remarks, the House Democratic majority dispensed—by raw party-line vote—with parliamentary niceties dating to the pen of Thomas Jefferson himself.
Welcome to another great moment in Washington 2019, where the 45th president seems more determined than ever to keep defining deviancy down, and to encourage everyone else to see the moral high ground as just another slippery and shifting partisan slope.
The day began normally enough for this non-normal age, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi determined to pass a nonbinding resolution rebuking Trump’s series of tweets attacking the four Democratic members as America-hating socialists who should “go back” to where they came from, even though all but one of them were born in the United States.
But in her floor speech in support of the measure, Pelosi declared, “There’s no excuse for any response to those words but a swift and strong unified condemnation. Every single member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the president’s racist tweets.” That was too much for Republican Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, who rose to ask the speaker whether she’d like to “rephrase that comment.”
“I have cleared my remarks with the parliamentarian before I read them,” Pelosi rejoined before walking away from the lectern in the well of the House. Collins was not satisfied, protesting that the speaker’s words were “unparliamentary” and should be “taken down,” or stricken from the congressional record, in accordance with long-standing House protocols that ban personal invective in floor debate. Among the authorities that govern House procedure in this regard is Thomas Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice, published in 1801 and used by the House since the 1830s. It forbids language “which is personally offensive to the president” (and was, of course, written by that greatest of American conundrums: the man who wrote that “all men are created equal,” yet owned slaves).
There is hardly moral equivalence between Trump’s norm-shattering comments about the congresswomen and Pelosi’s protocol-pushing insistence that the president’s words were racist. But there was just enough uncomfortable overlap to prove, once again, Trump’s singular genius: his ability, through his own relentless uncouth behavior, to goad others into actions that leave them subject to criticism as well. The day’s events showed, yet again, how singularly unable establishment Washington is, with all its rules and decorum, to cope with a presidency like Trump’s.
In the hour-long state of confusion and fevered consultation that followed Collins’s objection, the presiding officer, Democratic Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, at last lost his patience and stalked off the rostrum. “We don’t ever, ever want to pass up, it seems, an opportunity to escalate, and that’s what this is. We want to just fight. I abandon the chair,” he said, an abdication apparently without precedent in the modern annals of the House.
Soon enough, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland—as it happens, a long-standing rival and frenemy of Pelosi’s—took the chair and was compelled to declare that “characterizing an action as ‘racist’ is not in order” under House rules. But Hoyer also called for a vote on whether Pelosi’s remarks should be excised from the record, and by a strict party-line vote, the majority decided they should not. In another, the Democrats restored Pelosi’s ability to speak on the House floor again before day’s end—a privilege she would have lost if the objection to her words had stood.
Near the end of the debate, Democratic Representative John Lewis of Georgia, one of the last living icons of the civil-rights movement—whose skull was fractured by state troopers on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama—was unblinking in summing up the stakes of the argument over Trump. “I know racism when I see it,” he told his colleagues. “I know racism when I feel it. And at the highest level of government, there’s no room for racism. The world is watching. They are shocked and dismayed because it seems we have lost our way as a nation.”
By day’s end, the original measure condemning Trump passed easily, 240–187, with just four Republicans and the chamber’s lone independent, Justin Amash of Michigan, voting with the Democrats.
Pelosi accomplished what she’d set out to do: make clear to Americans that the House majority uniformly rejects the president’s invective. But rather than grapple with the substance of what Trump actually said, Republican lawmakers chose to focus on the speaker’s breach of protocol and turn their outrage back on the Democrats. “We have rules for a reason,” the minority whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, insisted, while the Republican minority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, struck a lugubrious tone. “It is a sad day for this House,” McCarthy said, after reading from the first page of Jefferson’s manual, which declares: “It is very material that order, decency and regularity be preserved in a dignified public body.”
What McCarthy did not read is the passage that comes just before that sentence, in which Jefferson argued for the necessity of rules and norms. “And whether these forms be in all cases the most rational or not is really not of so great importance,” Jefferson wrote. “It is much more material that there should be a rule to go by than what that rule is; that there may be a uniformity of proceeding in business not subject to the caprice of the Speaker or the captiousness of the members.”
It is the utter shredding of that precept—the very idea that there must be an agreed-upon set of rules and procedures and, yes, facts—that remains Trump’s abiding contribution to political debate, not just in the House of Representatives, but in the country as a whole. And it’s a contribution that is likely to echo down through history, long after the particulars of today’s bitter battle are forgotten.
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