MINOT, NORTH DAKOTA — Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted “you
lie” during President Obama’s recent address to a joint
session of Congress. Such an outburst challenges our standards of appropriate
decorum and civility. Following the address, Wilson called and apologized,
and his apology was accepted.
That did not end the matter, however. House Rules Committee Chairwoman
Louise Slaughter (D-NY) then updated the House Rules “primer.” The
primer is not the rules; rather, it provides guidelines as to what
is appropriate and inappropriate to say in the House chamber.
The primer now states that members cannot call the President a liar
or hypocrite, describe a veto as cowardly, say the president is intellectually
dishonest or is giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or refer to sexual
misconduct on the President’s part. The primer suggests it is
not in order to engage in personality attacks. Who would argue?
Wilson’s comment came when the President said illegal immigrants
would not be eligible for federal subsidies to purchase health insurance
under his plan. Those pushing healthcare reform claim their proposals
prohibit illegals from getting assistance. The only bill we had seen
at the time of the President’s address was HB 3200. President
Obama aggressively lobbied Congress to pass this legislation and urged
the American people to pressure their representatives to vote for it.
No language in HB 3200 prohibits illegals from receiving coverage.
Title II, section 202(a) of HB 3200 states, “all individuals
are eligible to obtain coverage.” Such language does not appear
to exclude anyone. If illegals were not intended to be covered, why
were amendments specifically worded to prohibit their coverage voted
down? The answer is obvious.
Is it any wonder the American public has so little respect for, or
confidence in, elected officials? The Supreme Court declared “political
speech” does not have to be truthful and “political” lies
are not legally actionable when spoken or written by elected officials
or candidates for elected office. House guidelines prohibit pointing
out lies, hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, and sexual misconduct
in that chamber.
The American public may be better served if House Rules encouraged
Members of Congress and all elected officials to be chastised instead
of protected when lies, hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, and sexual
misconduct are at issue.
To play the devil’s advocate, saying “you lie” is
not the same as calling a person a liar. This may sound Clintonesque,
but Representative Wilson’s action was to challenge a specific
claim of the President rather than engage in a personal attack. While
the timing may have been poor, the President’s statement was
factually incorrect and needed to be challenged.
We should hold our political representatives to standards of truth.
It is appropriate to disagree on policy and philosophical differences
and do so aggressively. However, pointing out when someone makes inaccurate
statements, intentional or not, should be the hallmark of a free and
vibrant political system. Attempting to stifle those who would hold
elected officials responsible for incorrect and misleading statements
is the road to chaos and eventually to the loss of liberty.
Today our political leaders do not have the confidence of the American
people. To a considerable degree, this is because we no longer trust
what they tell us. Regardless of political persuasion, we should be
able to agree that misleading, inaccurate, and false claims should
never be protected, tolerated, or left uncorrected.
Congressman Wilson’s comment, as improper as its timing may
have been, should have been a wake-up call. Our elected officials should
have seen it as a reminder of the importance of accuracy, intellectual
honesty, and appropriate conduct. Instead, they reworked the rules
to protect misleading and inaccurate statements from being called out
on the floor of the House.
Robust political debate is healthy. Inaccurate and misleading statements
should be pointed out as they are made and not let stand. Accomplishing
this may be challenging. However, protecting inaccurate and misleading
statements challenges true liberty and freedom.
It is time we demand that elected officials be truthful. It is time
that we, as citizens, clearly distinguish between discussion of facts
related to proposed laws and debates on policy. Until we do, we can
expect our political class to continue deteriorating further into bickering
and braying voices. One wonders where all the statesmen have gone.
A Voice from Fly-Over
A Voice from Fly-Over Country is copyright © 2009 by Robert
L. Hale and the Fitzgerald Griffin
All rights reserved.
Robert L. Hale received his J.D. in law from Gonzaga University Law
School in Spokane, Washington. He is founder and director of a non-profit
public interest law firm. For more than three decades he has been involved
in drafting proposed laws and counseling elected officials in ways
to remove burdensome and unnecessary rules and regulations.
See a complete biographical sketch.
To subscribe or donate to the FGF E-Package online or
send a check to:
P.O. Box 1383
Vienna, VA 22183