A.J. DiCintio
Cleaning up the House
By A.J. DiCintio
September 19, 2009

A still-shocked Speaker Pelosi is absolutely right that the U.S. House of Representatives is in dire need of a good moral scouring. But she shouldn't go French on herself and regard the need for this scrubbing as a uniquely American problem; for the truth is that legislatures have been fouled by dishonesty and sleaze of every conceivable kind for a very, very long time.

For example, crazed though he was, Caligula (circa 40 A.D.) correctly attempted to improve the moral atmosphere of the Roman Senate by insisting his horse join its population of horse's asses.

(O.K., scholars, if the emperor didn't actually do it, he should have.)

If she is to succeed in the crucial but daunting task before her, the Speaker also needs to understand that congressional corruption didn't begin a year ago or ten years ago; for the fact is that throughout most of American history, the public has regarded Congress as operating on a plane lower than that of its Roman counterpart.

It may not make Pelosi happy; but she must come face to face with that truth. And there's no better way than by reading and re-reading the following observations of the great Samuel Langhorne Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) born November 30, 1835, a year that Halley's Comet could be seen zooming over the skies of his birthplace in Florida — Florida, Missouri, that is.

Yes, as a son of the Show Me State, Twain demanded that before he drew any conclusions about Congress, its members should "show him." They did, and he reacted appropriately:

Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

All Congresses and Parliaments have a kindly feeling for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity.

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.

(thanks to twainquotes.com)

If she's not a big fan of Twain, Mrs. Pelosi will surely be enlightened by this sentence uttered more than 70 years ago by the accomplished Will Rogers, a humanitarian, actor, and humorist who deserves to be remembered as one of America's greatest wits:

Our constitution protects, aliens, drunks, and U.S. Senators.

Now, to return to the problem Madam Speaker faces, the sad fact is that with respect to public service, the great majority of contemporary Americans correctly put Congress a dozen spots below "Shameless, Despicable Thieves."

And with respect to honesty, those same Americans place Congress just a little bit above Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Not a happy state of affairs for Mrs. Pelosi. But here is an important first step she can take to repair the image of her own house.

She should pull aside Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY) and tell her that when she attempted to clean up "decorum and debate in the House and in Committees specifically with regard to references to the President of the United States," she got things upside down, thus further making the House an object of contempt and mockery.

Here (thank you, Politico, for the tip) are the pertinent details about Slaughter's labors, accompanied by a few comments.

As Chairwoman of the Majority Office Committee on Rules, Representative Slaughter recently issued a missive to House members, reminding them of the following:

Under section 370 of the House Rules and Manual it has been held that a Member could:

. . . refer to the government as "something hated, something oppressive."
. . . refer to the President as "using legislative or judicial pork."
. . . refer to a Presidential message as a "disgrace to the country."
. . . refer to unnamed officials as "our half-baked nitwits handling foreign affairs."

An excellent reminder. But the congresswoman failed to make the most of it in two ways: (1) She neglected to plead with members to use such language every single time it is called for. (2) She didn't point out that the list is woefully inadequate in length and intensity.

To make matters worse, Slaughter made a huge mistake when, in the next part of her letter, she doesn't just list the Manual's proscriptions; she accepts them:

Likewise, it has been held that a member could not:

. . . call the President a "liar."
. . . call the President a "hypocrite."
. . . describe the President's veto of a bill as "cowardly."
. . . charge that the President has been "intellectually dishonest."
. . . refer to the President as "giving aid and comfort to the enemy."
. . . refer to alleged "sexual misconduct on the President's part."

This is not to say that members of the House ought to be encouraged to go around willy-nilly denouncing a president as a liar, hypocrite, or sexual jerk (or worse).

However, absolutely proscribing the terms listed above constitutes an offense to Truth that serves neither the House nor the nation well. After all, presidents are merely human beings — and infinitely worse, they are politicians.

Moreover, it is a good thing for presidents to know they might, for example, be called a liar — especially if the media would react not with shock at the use of the term but with a careful examination of the facts surrounding the charge, all in the interest of informing the citizenry, the ultimate arbiters of proper political decorum.

Who knows? It might help presidents refrain from saying things such as these:

Watergate? I don't even know what a watergate is.

I never had sex with that woman, and I don't know anything about IRS audits of women who have accused me of crimes ranging from assault to rape.

It is a lie that the healthcare bill my party has written will allow illegal aliens access to a "public option." [The president knowing full well that House members of his party explicitly rejected amendments to enforce the provision denying coverage to illegal aliens]

Finally, Fairness demands the admission that Congresswoman Slaughter's message does end with a valuable piece of information of which the Speaker should take careful note:

However, the Senate rules on decorum and debate do not prohibit personal references to the President. Senate Rule XIX governing decorum and debate is applied only to fellow Senators and "does not extend to the President, the Vice President, or Administration officials and a Senator cannot be called to order under rule XIX for comments or remarks about them..." (Senate Procedure, p. 741).

Well, now we know for certain Caligula wasn't 100% cuckoo; for his horse effected some moral changes that live on to this day.

However, let us never forget that because the horse was dealing with humans, his work in cleaning up legislative bodies could never be perfect, as evidenced by the fact that U.S. Senate rules prevent august, hoary-headed Senators from telling the truth about their honorable member colleagues.

As for the Speaker and the House, there's this problem:

The noble Incitatus was able to reason with the mad Caligula and horse's petutes who held forth on Rome's seven hills. But if he were able to trot up Capitol Hill these days, he wouldn't be able to reason with the stretch limousine liberal from San Francisco even if he neighed for a billion years.

© A.J. DiCintio


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

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A.J. DiCintio

A.J. DiCintio posts regularly at RenewAmerica and YourNews.com. He first exercised his polemical skills arguing with friends on the street corners of the working class neighborhood where he grew up. Retired from teaching, he now applies those skills, somewhat honed and polished by experience, to social/political affairs.


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