Transcript: Gingrich's House floor statement on decorum during Clinton debate
September 10, 1998
SPEAKER GINGRICH: The chair desires to make a statement.
With the concurrence of the minority leader, the chair would take this occasion to make an announcement regarding proper decorum during debate in the House, including one-minute and special order speeches, specifically with regard to references to the president of the United States.
As indicated in Section 17 of Jefferson's manual, which under Rule 42 is incorporated as a part of the rules of the House, members engaging in debate must abstain from language that is personally offensive toward the president, including references to various types of unethical behavior.
Rulings in this Congress, which will be annotated in the accompanying Section 370 of the House rules and manual, include references to alleged criminal conduct. This documented restriction extends to referencing extraneous material personally abusive to the president that would be improper as spoken as the members own words.
Occupants of the chair in this Congress and in prior Congresses have consistently adhered to this principle regarding the present and past presidents.
While several rulings by the chair in this Congress may have predated certain public acknowledgments by the president and while the standard in Jefferson's manual has been held not to apply in the other body, it is essential that the constraint against such remarks in ordinary debate continue to apply in the House.
On January 27th, 1909, the House adopted a report in response to improper references in debate to the president. That report read in part as follows -- quote -- "The freedom of speech in debate in the House of Representatives should never be denied or abridged. But freedom of speech in debate does not mean license to indulge in personal abuses or ridicule. The right of members of the two houses of Congress to criticize the official acts of the president and other executive officers is beyond question. But this right is subject to proper rules requiring decorum in debate, such right of criticism and (ph) inherent upon legislative authority.
"The right to legislate involves the right to consider conditions as they are and to contrast present conditions with those of the past or those desired in the future. The right to correct abuses by legislation carries the right to consider and discuss abuses which exist or which are feared.
"It is the duty of the House to require its members in speech or debate to preserve that proper restraint which will permit the House to conduct its business in an orderly manner and without unnecessarily and unduly exciting animosity among its members or antagonism from those other branches of the government with which the House is correlated."
This is recorded in Canon's "Precedents," Volume VIII, at Section 2497, and is quoted in Section 370 of the House rules and manual.
In addition to relying on the precedents of the House, the chair would comment on the importance of comity and integrity of debate in the House in an electronic age.
Debates in the House were not broadcast by radio or television before 1978. There were correspondingly fewer occasions when members were called to order for improper personal references to presidents.
In 1974, there were no allegations of personal misconduct on the part of the president called to order on the floor before or during proceedings in executive session of the Committee on the Judiciary. Indeed, it is only during the actual pendency of proceedings in impeachment as the pending business on the floor of the House that remarks and debate may include references to personal misconduct on the part of the president.
While an inquiry is under way in committee, the committee is the proper forum for examination and debate of such allegations. In the meantime, it is incumbent on the House to conduct its other business -- again quoting from the action of the House in 1909 -- "in an orderly manner, and without unnecessarily and unduly exciting animosity among its members or antagonism from those other branches of the government with which the House is correlated."
This is not to say that the president is beyond criticism or debate, or that members are prohibited from expressing opinions about executive policy or competence to hold office.
It is permissible to debate and challenge the president on matters of policy. The difference is one between political criticism and personally offensive criticism.
For example, a member may assert and debate that an incumbent president is not worthy of re-election, but in doing so, should not allude to personal misconduct. By extension, a member may assert and debate that the House should conduct an inquiry or that a president should not remain in office.
What the rule of decorum requires is that oratory remain above personality and refrain from terms personally offensive.
When an impeachment matter is not pending on the floor, a member who feels a need to dwell on personal factual bases underlying the rationale on which he might question the fitness or competence of an incumbent president must do so in other forums while conforming his remarks and debate to a more rigorous standard of decorum that must prevail in this chamber.
The chair will enforce this rule of decorum with respect to references to the president, and asks and expects the cooperation of all members in maintaining a level of decorum that properly dignifies the proceedings of the House.
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