‘Liar’ Charge Sparks Rules Debate

Posted July 13, 2007 at 5:57pm

Ex-White House counsel Harriet Miers’ refusal to appear before a House Judiciary subcommittee on Thursday raised plenty of thorny constitutional issues. But the hearing also spawned a less-noticed parliamentary question: Is it against House rules to call President Bush a liar?

The answer, both parties seem to agree now, is yes.

Frustrated by the administration claiming executive privilege and blocking Miers’ testimony, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) offered a lengthy criticism of Bush’s record toward the end of Thursday’s hearing, which included a statement that Bush lied about the reasons for going to war with Iraq in 2003.

“He’s the same president who lied to Congress and to the American people about the reasons for going to war, the president who put people in jail without even bringing any charges against them and rendered them to other countries for questioning,” Watt said.

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) offered an objection on the grounds that Watt’s words were “unparliamentary” and violated House rules on debate and decorum that forbid personal attacks on Members, the president or vice president. More specifically, page 401 of the House Manual states that “it is out of order to call the president a ‘liar’ or a ‘hypocrite’ or to refer to accusations of sexual misconduct.”

“The gentleman is my friend and colleague and a person who I admire greatly,” Cannon said. “I’m reluctant to do this, but we have rules of decorum in Congress, and the gentleman has gone beyond what those rules allow several times. The relevant rule is a Member may refer to political motives of the president in debate. However, personal criticism, innuendo, ridicule or terms of opprobrium are not in order. The gentleman’s words are clearly out of order, and I ask the chair that his words be taken down.”

A problem arose when Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee Chairwoman Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) countered that the words were not “unparliamentary,” which parliamentarians and leadership aides on both sides of the aisle later agreed was the wrong procedural call.

“The chair believes that the words of the gentleman, although harsh, were not unparliamentary,” Sánchez said. “And since he has graciously yielded back the balance of his time, your objection will be noted for the record.”

Cannon then tried to appeal Sánchez’s ruling and have Watt’s words taken down, a move that, if successful, bans a Member from speaking in committee or on the floor for the rest of the legislative day.

Cannon’s effort failed on a party-line vote and the hearing adjourned shortly after. As word trickled up the leadership ladder — and amid threats that Cannon was willing to take it to the House floor in a privileged resolution — it appears Democrats have agreed to a do-over at the next subcommittee hearing, according to both Democratic and GOP aides.

A bipartisan resolution was reached relatively quickly as Democrats realized that it would not be in their best political interests to alter House precedent and allow Members to start calling the president a liar.

While a formal decision had not been announced at press time, aides said Friday it was expected that at the next subcommittee meeting there would be a motion to reopen debate and vacate the earlier decision of the chair. If no one objects, the matter will be resolved and Cannon will drop his objection.

A Democratic aide said Sánchez did not intend to upset House precedent and noted that committee proceedings are generally more amicable. “We have taken great pains to make the Judiciary Committee as bipartisan as possible given the sensitivity of the [U.S. attorneys] issue,” the aide said.