Probably one of the most difficult moments during Congressman Joseph Moakley’s (D-MA) 74 years on this earth was while he was presiding over the House of Representatives on May, 15, 1984. His close friend and mentor, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA), gave Moakley the gavel and went into the well of the House to excoriate Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia for using political tactics O’Neill believed unbecoming of the body and destructive to the House’s ability to conduct fair and civil debate.
But O’Neill grew very emotional and carried his rebuke too far. He stated, “in my opinion, what you and your colleagues have done, what you”—he pointed to Gingrich—“have done, was the lowest thing I have ever seen in 35 years of politics.” Congressman Trent Lott of Louisiana immediately jumped to his feet to object that the rules of the House had been violated and that the speaker’s words “be taken down,” which means that they should be stricken from the record and that the individual who used them be barred from further participation in debate for the day on which the offense occurred.
It was up to Moakley to rule on whether his friend should be rebuked. While he was very much opposed to ruling against the speaker he sought the advice of the parliamentarian, an officer of the House who advises the chair on the precedents of the House and whether a ruling would be consistent with previous rulings in the history of the institution.
The parliamentarian was unequivocal—the speaker’s words were in clear violation of House rules. Moakley argued that what the speaker had said was in fact true. The parliamentarian countered that the presiding officer of the House could not determine the veracity of charges made within the chamber and that characterizations of another member’s conduct such as that made by the speaker lowered the standards of debate and decorum. Worse, if not rebuked it would become a future precedent for the standards of floor debate.
Reluctantly, Moakley picked up the gavel, ruled against his friend and ordered the words stricken from the record—the first time in the history of the House that a speaker had received such a rebuke.
Moakley’s difficult but correct choice stands in sharp contrast to the outrageous stance taken by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and others who attempted yesterday to defend the indefensible conduct of Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina who not only used the House floor to call the President of the United States a liar—a violation of the rules under any set of circumstances—but did so while the president was speaking to a joint session of Congress.
Boehner to his credit attempted to get Wilson to apologize to the House for his outburst, but then reversed himself when the resolution disapproving of the conduct came to the floor yesterday. The floor leader’s failure to defend the institution in which he serves was appalling. His arguments for doing so could only be called pathetic.
He called the measure a “partisan stunt” despite the fact that it was supported by one of Wilson’s own South Carolina Republican colleagues, Bob Inglis, who saw little choice on the matter since he himself had ruled members out of order for less blatant violations of House rules when his party was in the majority. Boehner also argued that the House should not take time to discuss the matter while issues such as health care were before the country, and he seemed to think no one would remember that he and his colleagues had spent the entire summer attempting to filibuster the appropriation bills in order to delay the health care debate for as long as possible.
But his most egregious argument was that Wilson’s apology for rude behavior to the president somehow rectified the damage that Wilson had done to the rules and standards of civility of the institution in which he serves. Given that it was widely reported that Boehner attempted to persuade Wilson to apologize to the House for his gaffe he obviously does not himself believe that argument. But Boehner, like Joe Moakley a quarter of a century ago, had to decide whether he had a higher obligation to a colleague or the institution he has been sworn to defend.
The seriousness of the offense that Boehner was asked to judge was far greater and the courage required to confront the offender was far less given the discomfort Moakley must have felt in ruling against the man who had given him the gavel. Nonetheless Boehner got it wrong.
John Boehner is not naturally mean-spirited, divisive, or comfortable with the kind of behavior that Wilson displayed last week. He—unlike others who have served his party in leadership positions since Bob Michel left the House—has in the past demonstrated serious legislative ability and a capacity to reach across the aisle and fashion compromises when the national interest required it. It is unfortunate that he now leads a group that will not allow him to use those skills and in which he has to portray himself as being something quite different from the congressman and legislative leader he might have otherwise become.
Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He previously served as clerk and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee and executive director of the Joint Economic Committee.