Liberal Dem seeks reform of 'restrictive' oath-taking process

After a pair of House Republicans came under fire for their remote swearing-in this week, a liberal Democrat is calling for more leniency surrounding the time-honored oath-taking process.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said Friday the rules governing lawmakers' oaths are too strict and could endanger the country in the case of a disaster or attack.

"I think [it] needs to be changed," he said. "It's way too restrictive, and it goes to the whole question of succession and [what happens] in the case of a disaster. To say members have to be sworn in, present on the floor, with the Speaker in the chair — I think we need to revisit [that]."

The Oregon Democrat, who was in his district during Wednesday's opening of the 112th Congress, said he'd planned to be sworn in by a federal judge at home.

"I thought that was OK," DeFazio said. "We'd already arranged it."

As a last-minute precaution, DeFazio said he had his staff call the House clerk and parliamentarian — both of whom said a federal judge was no substitute for an official oath-taking on the chamber floor.

His response was incredulity. "We checked, and we said, 'What?' "

DeFazio arrived at the Capitol Thursday morning, and was sworn in by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). 

He wasn't the only member caught up in the technicalities of the opening ceremonies. GOP Reps. Pete Sessions (Texas) and Michael Fitzpatrick (Pa.) became entangled this week in a much-higher profile episode, when the two lawmakers — attending a separate event in the Capitol — attempted their swearing in before a television projecting Boehner delivering the oath.

The snafu wasn't discovered before Sessions and Fitzpatrick had voted several times during the week, causing GOP leaders to offer a special resolution Friday invalidating those votes. The measure passed by a tally of 257 to 159. Twenty-seven Democrats joined every Republican in approving the resolution.

In DeFazio's case, the oath-taking wasn't the only opening ceremony he missed: He was also the only House member to skip Wednesday's vote for Speaker.

The Oregon liberal defended his absence Friday, saying the Speaker's vote was "ceremonial" and he was in his district "doing real work."

That reference was to DeFazio's efforts to save a veterans hospital in Roseburg, Ore. The Roseburg VA Medical Center had been slated for funding cuts last year, leading DeFazio and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to ask the Veterans Affairs Department to delay those cuts until an impact study could be performed. That study was released publicly on Wednesday, prompting a community meeting featuring VA officials and hundreds of local veterans.

Being there, DeFazio said, was much more important than voting in a Speaker's contest where the outcome was well known.

"It was a totally symbolic vote," said DeFazio, who's been one of the sharpest critics of Democratic leadership since the November midterms. "I was doing real work."

He declined to say how he would have voted had he been in the chamber.