House unravels with rise of ‘Les Enfants Terrible’

On Tuesday at 5 p.m., the United States officially embraced the rule of Les Enfants Terribles.” Chaos broke out in the House of Representatives over a non-binding resolution denouncing President Trump as a racist. In an intentional violation of House rules, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made personal attacks against the president rather than craft a resolution denouncing his Twitter attack on four freshman members of Congress.  

What followed was a demand to strike the House rules and an unprecedented overruling of the House parliamentarian by Democrats—an act that shattered longstanding principles. 

In one week both parties have confirmed that they will forego any semblance of actual governance in favor of made-for-television temper tantrums.

This showdown on the House floor began with President Trump’s disgraceful series of tweets attacking the four freshman congresswomen, telling them to “go back” to the countries they “originally came from,” adding that they “can’t leave fast enough.” Like many observers, I condemned those tweets as shameful for the country and the presidency.

Democrats were right to pounce on the president, and more Republicans should have publicly condemned his remarks. But House Democrats overplayed their hand. Some, such as Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), called for an impeachment vote based on “bigotry”—an ambiguous standard that would gut the Constitution’s impeachment clause and negate other constitutional protections, including the First Amendment.

I think a resolution supporting the four House members was warranted, and a resolution condemning Trump’s remarks could have been worded to satisfy House rules. But Pelosi wanted a resolution that would denounce Trump as a racist and force Republicans to sign on or to trigger a floor fight.

House rules prohibit disparaging comments about a president or House members. The rule traces back to Thomas Jefferson; it allows for criticism of the government or a president but bars “personally offensive” remarks. Jefferson’s manual stipulates that this prohibition extends to any “racial or other discrimination on the Part of the President.” Indeed, the manual’s first page emphasizes this principle of “order” and “decency” in legislative debates. House Rule XXII, Clause 1(B) reflects this rule from the earliest days of the republic and requires that remarks on the floor “be confined to the question under debate, avoiding personality.”

Pelosi reportedly warned Democratic members that she intended to blast the president and that they should be ready for a floor fight over the violation of Rule XXII.

When she was challenged by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), she told all of the members that she had “cleared my remarks with the parliamentarian before I read them.” That seems odd, since Parliamentarian Tom Wickham proceeded to rule that the remarks clearly violated the House rule and had to be “taken down.” And House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) declared that “the words should not be used in debate.”

The House has consistently (if grudgingly) yielded to such decisions by the parliamentarian, viewed by both parties as the unchallengeable keeper of House rules. The last time that a House speaker faced such a ruling was Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) in 1985.

Yet, Democrats proceeded to shatter that precedent and overrule the parliamentarian’s conclusion. Some 232 Democrats voted to dispense with the longstanding rule, then nullified the standard penalty of barring Pelosi from speaking on the floor for that day.

With this ill-considered action, Democrats enabled Trump to argue that they were not only violating House rules with insults on the floor but also refusing to follow the rules of their own institution. Indeed, Democrats showed the same disregard for rules and decorum that they accuse Trump of displaying in the White House.

It is perhaps fitting that a rule enforcing order and decorum should be the subject of this meltdown in Congress. There is no room for civility in today’s politics. Various liberal groups have denounced calls for civility and even supported attacks on conservatives in restaurants and on streets. Former Vice President Joe Biden was recently denounced for saying he tried to serve in the Senate with civility, even toward segregationist senators, to get things done; he was forced by the left to make a rather pathetic apology.

There is a reason why the House has enforced this rule, and it was readily obvious when Pelosi discarded it: Members shouted at each other as the presiding officer pounded the gavel, like a cadence for chaos. At one point, the presiding chair, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), threw down the gavel and declared: “I abandon the chair.” The empty chair perfectly embodied a House now guided only by soundbites and a process that has become little more than a low-rated cable news dogfight. With only seven legislative days left, the House spent a day tearing its rules and its institution apart for instant political gratification.  Such conduct may be thrilling to many in our “age of rage,” but it is a disgrace to the House of Representatives.

Decades ago, I arrived in the House as a 15-year-old page from Chicago. I watched in awe as members debated some of the most important issues of that day, from nuclear arms treaties to civil rights legislation. I came to love the House as an institution, a love that continues to this day. One of my greatest honors was, years later, to represent the House in federal court.

Years ago I was lead counsel in the last impeachment trial in the Senate, arguing the case for accused judge Thomas Porteous on the Senate floor. There came a moment when the Senate had to break to vote on an arms treaty. In the lull, I stood in the well of the Senate and the presiding officer for the impeachment trial, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), asked how I felt the trial was going. 

I had long admired Inouye, and I told him that memories from my pageship flooded back as I argued before the 100 senators—but I couldn’t shake how small in public stature those senators seemed. My page days, I said, were a time when political giants roamed Congress, from Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) to William Fulbright (D-Ark.) to Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). They fought great fights but remained united in their civility to each other and their fealty to Congress. Now, I said, they had been replaced by petty, small people. Sen. Inouye looked sad and said he often thought about those lost times, too, when he entered the chamber.

I often think of my chat with him when I see today’s members dragging both houses of Congress into a race to the bottom. What was chilling this week is that it was the House speaker who knowingly abandoned House rules and forced a muscle-vote to override the House’s professional staff. What followed was a legislative debate that perfectly captures our rabid political times.  

Of course, that is not what the Framers wanted in creating a “representative democracy.” Their idea was of reasoned, thoughtful leaders creating a buffer between the passions of politics and the work of the legislature. That buffer is now gone, along with any semblance of order and decorum, thanks to the rise of Les Enfants Terribles.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley. 

Tags Al Green Daniel Inouye Donald Trump Doug Collins Efforts to impeach Donald Trump Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi Parliamentary procedure U.S. House Of Representatives United States House of Representatives

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