Words Taken Down

The Murky Puddle Left Behind When Terrible Truth
and Corrupted Consequence Collide

I was watching C-Span Tuesday and California Congressman Henry Waxman got up to speak on behalf of a resolution condemning the State Department’s obstruction of the investigation of Iraqi government corruption. This malfeasance not only jeopardizes the future of the people of Iraq, but also presents extra risks and deadly challenges to the U.S. service personnel fighting and dying there.

In voicing his frustration with the Bush administration, Waxman drew an easy parallel between the corrupt intelligence the administration used to get us into this war, and the way the State Department has been stonewalling congressional inquiry by classifying publicly released reports retroactively and refusing to testify publicly about the allegations.

The rebuke passed overwhelmingly, by a vote of 395 to 21. But in his argument for the resolution, Waxman committed a congressional faux-pas. This is what he said:

"We must stop the pattern of dissembling and the misuse of
classified information. President Bush is now asking
taxpayers for an additional $150 billion to support the war
and to support Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But he
is not being honest about the level of corruption in the
Maliki government."
(from the Congressional Record: October 16, 2007 (House)]
[Page H11576-H11586])

Instead of railing solely against the actions of the administration, he off-handedly referred to the administration as “he.” Apparently, you can’t say things like that during a congressional debate. No sooner had the words left his lips, then California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa jumped up.

"I ask that his words be taken down," he declared, "for
disparagement of the Bush administration."

Words Taken Down” is an objection to words uttered in debate, according to House rules. A representative cannot say anything disparaging , of a personal nature, against the president or vice president. It’s alright for David Letterman or Keith Olbermann to call Bush a liar on TV, but they can’t do it on the floor of the House of Representatives. Freedom of Speech has rules, I guess, but since they didn’t make “a law,” it probably doesn’t violate the First Amendment. Anyway, the rule says that if, after the clerk reads the passage in question back to the Chair, the words are indeed found to be objectionable, the representative who made the offending statement is disallowed from participating in debate for the rest of the day.

Waxman was forced to sit while the record was recounted, but before a determination was made, he declared that he misspoke, that indeed he intended to say “the Bush administration,” and not “he.” Indeed, if you check the Congressional Record, you will see ellipses where the “he” was originally spoken.

The Chair checked with Issa to see if that was okay with him, Issa said:

"I have no objection as long as the admonishment of the Chair
would be that, in fact, there is a caution as to disparaging
or appearing to disparage the office or the person of
the President or the Vice President under our rules."

The chair acknowledged the “caution” and Waxman was allowed to continue.

In watching that parliamentary bizzareness, I wondered if the Senate has the same rules. If they do, is it reciprocal? That is, when Cheney said to Senator Pat Leahy in June, 2004, on the floor of the Senate Chamber, “Fuck yourself,” was he admonished? Probably not, but that could be for lots of reasons. Maybe the senate has no rule similar to “words taken down.” Also, since the Veep’s unfortunate remark happened during a photo shoot, and not during open debate, it’s not part of the record. Still, what would the consequences be for the Vice President if that were the case? Since he hardly ever takes his presider’s chair anyway, what good would it have done to make him sit for a day?

What is clear, and always has been, is that Cheney feels as free to fire insults at his political opponents as he is firing buckshot at his friends, all without fear of consequence. He feels that there are certain powers granted to the executive branch of government that allow it to remain aloof and in charge, privileged and, when necessary, impenetrable. It’s all part of his grand plan to expand and consolidate the power of the presidency.

According to the new book Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, by Charlie Savage:

“[T]he vice president was…immersed…in an agenda he had been developing for thirty years.

“…He wanted to reduce the authority of Congress and the courts and to expand the ability of the commander in chief and his top advisers to govern with maximum flexibility and minimum oversight. He hoped to enlarge the zone of secrecy around the executive branch, to reduce the power of Congress to restrict presidential action…and to impose greater White House control over the permanent workings of government.” (pp. 8-9)

It seems that ever since Congress imposed greater oversight on the presidency in reaction to the executive abuses of Watergate and the misleading way the war in Vietnam was sold to the American people, Cheney, himself an aide in the Nixon White House, has been talking about restoring the President’s power. In 1996, according to Savage, Cheney said:

” ‘Congress has begun to encroach upon the powers and the responsibilities of the President,’ “ and that he wants to, ” ‘go back and try to restore that balance.’ ” (p. 9)

It seems to me that the vice president must have some inner ear problems because the lack of balance is in his mind. The “encroaching” Congress gave this administration everything it asked for in the first six years. If Dick Cheney wanted this administration to be an example of what the presidency should be, what powers it should have, then he has left a sad and broken legacy that Congress once again will have to fix. They won’t be able to fix it now. Some of the most important reforms that Cheney regrets took place with a Democratic Congress and a Democrat in the White House. This Congress is hampered by not having a clear enough majority, a veto-proof majority – not that it should be an excuse for disappointing congressional capitulation we have seen this year.

I have heard that there are many who are vying for the presidency in 2008 – in both parties – who relish the idea of expanded power, but I urge all of the candidates to keep this in mind: you may become the President of the United States, but this is still a representative government, and if Congress can remain true to its constituency, then their word is the will of the people. “Thy will be done” is a humble obeisance to a god, not a license to a leader to indulge a personal agenda.


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