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A Voice from Fly-Over Country
September 22, 2009

Tempest in a Teapot: A Lost Opportunity
by Robert L. Hale

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.

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A Voice from Fly-Over Country is copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Hale and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. 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.

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