On Tuesday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the floor to deliver a speech ahead of the chamber’s vote on a resolution condemning President Donald Trump’s racist tweets against four freshmen Democratic congresswomen. The resolution—titled “Condemning President Trump’s racist comments directed at Members of Congress”—straightforwardly described the president’s comments for what they were, and so did Pelosi in her remarks.
“These comments from the White House are disgraceful and disgusting,” she said, “and these comments are racist.” She later called on all members to vote to condemn “the president’s racist tweets,” and as she did, murmurs arose on the Republican side of the aisle. Uninterrupted, she turned to them as she read the final words of her remarks.
The concern with her adjective of choice—“racist”—is that in the House, the right-wing talk radio belief that it’s worse to be called a racist than it is to be a racist is etched into parliamentary precedent with regard to addressing the president. Members speaking on the floor are not allowed to “engage in personalities” with the president, and in Jefferson’s Manual, which governs parliamentary procedure, there is specific language that says remarks that “refer to the president as … having made a bigoted or racist statement” are not in order.
After Pelosi finished, Rep. Doug Collins, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, gave her the opportunity to “rephrase that comment.”
“I had cleared my remarks with the parliamentarian before I read them,” Pelosi said, and walked away from the well of the House. But had she?
Collins made a parliamentary request that Pelosi’s comments were out of order. And then we waited. Nearly an hour passed as Democrats determined what to do. When Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who was presiding over the debate, got the parliamentarian’s ruling, he didn’t want to deliver it and instead gave his own remarks.
“I came in here to try to do this in a fair way. I kept warning both sides, ‘let’s not do this,’ hoping we could get through … But we don’t ever, ever want to pass up, it seems, an opportunity to escalate,” he said. “And that’s what this is. I’ll dare anybody to look at any of the footage and see if there was any unfairness. But unfairness is not enough because we want to just fight. I abandon the chair.” He dropped the gavel and walked off.
Eventually, Pelosi asked Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to take up the chair and read the ruling.
“The chair is prepared to rule,” he said. “The words of the gentlewoman from California contain an accusation of racist behavior on behalf of the president,” he said, and ruled that they were out of order. The precedent he cited was from May 1984—the last time a speaker’s remarks, in that case Rep. Tip O’Neill’s, were found out of order. This was followed by Collins’ motion to strike Pelosi’s remarks from the record, which failed, and a vote to restore Pelosi’s speaking privileges for the day—yes, violations of order require the guilty party to be placed in a timeout—which succeeded.
Afterward, Republicans made a number of speeches about the need for civility and decorum. Indeed, that really was their strategy on this day of hot-tempered parliamentary inquiry. Faced with a vote to condemn their party leader for tweeting racist trash, they tried to argue that it was, instead, the House Democrats who were the unhinged, belligerent party, unbridled in their word-policing, anarchists laying siege to the norms governing gentlemanly debate in our Republic. Bless them.
The resolution passed early in the evening, 240 to 187, with the support of every Democrat, four Republicans, and independent Rep. Justin Amash.
Pelosi stood by her remarks.