On Monday, two House Education Committee aides phoned to implore me to cover an event they were hawking about reforming student loans. The House plans to debate a bill on this subject later this week. I respectfully informed the aides I was sorry. There simply wasn’t the bandwidth. The House was poised to admonish Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) for jeering “You lie!” at President Obama during a Joint Session of Congress. The Senate was wrestling with health care. ACORN was in trouble and the Senate voted to defund it. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was testifying about H1N1 flu. I was working another story about troops in Afghanistan. I told them it was going to be hard to cover their press event.
One of the aides sighed and said she understood. “But it just always seems like education gets short shrift,” she protested.
That was until Tuesday.
Health care may be the most pressing policy issue in the country right now. Wilson’s hoot at President Obama may be the most radioactive political issue. But when the House went to discipline Wilson for his outburst, education suddenly sprang to the forefront on Capitol Hill.
House Democrats crafted a “resolution of disapproval” against Wilson’s heckle of the president. And when House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) led the charge against Wilson, class was in session.
“I stand here as a former school teacher and the proud father of a current public school teacher who teaches in the Congressional District represented by Congressman Wilson,” said Clyburn on the House floor. “This hall is the most prominent classroom in this great country.”
Later in the debate about Wilson’s fate, Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) also took up the mantle of education.
“The American people can do better and hopefully in this teachable moment we will learn,” said Miller.
More from Clyburn, who did not burst into a rendition of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tune “Teach Your Children” or “Be True to Your School” by the Beach Boys.
“All of us are teachers. We're bound by duty and the offices we hold to conduct ourselves as such,” Clyburn said. “Classroom teachers and schoolchildren across the country and around the world looking in on our proceedings should see proper decorum and hear civil discourse. Our teachers are expected to teach our children to learn proper behavior.”
Headmaster Clyburn refrained from discussing the school’s truancy policy (absences must be reported within 72 hours and accompanied by a note from a physician), the dress code (students will be sent home for inappropriate attire) or a ban on cell phones and iPods in class (items may be confiscated and returned only to parents or guardians).
“When one of us while seated in a formal session severely violates the rules of this body, shamelessly hurling accusations towards the President of these United States, our Commander in Chief, and refuses to formally express remorse, we at a minimum are duty-bound to express our disapproval. Our teachers, our students and constituents deserve no less,” Clyburn said.
A “resolution of disapproval” is not one of the four, historical means of disciplining lawmakers. Depending on the severity of the transgression, the House may expel, censure, reprimand or fine the offending lawmaker. In school terms, the “resolution of disapproval” was not detention or suspension, but more like a trip to the principal’s office.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) defended the Democrats’ decision to go light on Wilson.
“I think it is on the one hand important that we take action,” said Hoyer. “But on the other hand, we don’t need to make more of it than it was.”
The specter of Wilson’s punishment seeped through much of the action on the House floor Tuesday. Even when the House wasn’t considering the issue. More than two hours before the House voted on the resolution, Joe Wilson sat near the front of the chamber, girding for battle.
As the House labored through a series of non-controversial bills, GOP foot soldiers engaged in Joe Wilson’s war streamed by the seat occupied by the South Carolina Republican. Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) Dan Burton (R-IN) and Lamar Smith (R-TX) swung by to shake hands. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Candice Miller whispered words of encouragement. Meantime, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) sat a few seats behind Wilson leafed through the comic section of the Washington Post.
Then Wilson’s wife Roxanne, some personal friends and his aides entered the public gallery, one level above the House chamber. Wilson waved to Roxanne. He then made eye contact with someone else in the gallery and briefly pumped his fist.
And then the House appeared ready to debate the Wilson resolution. Until it took an unexpected 35-minute recess.
I always thought teachers cancelled recess when students act up, not award them extra time on the playground.
For Wilson, the delay was like an opposing team calling time-out to ice a field goal kicker. He shuffled through his papers. He jotted brief notes. He studied a copy of the resolution. Finally, with nothing else to do, Wilson exhaled deeply and sat alone for a few minutes. He later called the respite “disconcerting.”
Finally, just like in school, the Congressional bells rang and the House came back into session with Hoyer and Clyburn laying out their case against Wilson.
“This is our time to teach. Not just by precept, but by example,” Clyburn lectured.
Wilson stared straight ahead while Clyburn spoke, his hands resting on his stomach. His wife Roxanne looked down from the viewing gallery, resting her chin on her fist. A few more well-wishers dropped by Wilson’s seat. Rep. Geoff Davis (R-KY) shook his hand and Wilson gave him a thumbs up in return. Then Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) plopped down beside Wilson. Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) put his hand on Wilson’s arm, flanking him on the other side.
“My father used to teach me all the time. ‘Son,’ he would say, ‘the first sign of a good education is good manners,’” Clyburn continued. “And I would hope that this body today would demonstrate to all of those schoolchildren who are looking in on these proceedings that we are here to demonstrate what is proper decorum for you to follow in your classrooms.”
A bit later, the House bells rang again and lawmakers came to the floor to vote for or against the Wilson resolution. The House voted to rebuke Wilson, 240 to 179, with five lawmakers voting present. Twelve Democrats bucked their party and sided with the GOP. Meantime, seven Republicans crossed the aisle and voted in favor of the discipline. One of those who voted against Wilson was his fellow South Carolina Republican colleague Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC).
“The House had to police itself through a resolution of disapproval, which I supported” Inglis said in a statement.
But there were even deeper fissures between the pro-Wilson camp and other members of the South Carolina delegation.
A source close to Wilson who didn’t wish to be identified signaled particular contempt with Clyburn.
“I expected Jim Clyburn to do everything he could against Joe Wilson,” the source said. “He doesn’t dislike him. He hates Joe Wilson.”
“It’s hard to watch people vote against you who you thought were your friends,” said Roxanne Wilson after the vote. When asked whether she could forgive lawmakers who supported the sanction, she replied “It’ll take awhile.”
But the day’s lesson plan wasn’t complete yet. In the afternoon, the House Rules Committee published a guidebook reminding lawmakers how they should comport themselves in the House chamber. The rules emphasized that House members should not “refer to unnamed officials as ‘our half-baked nitwits handling foreign affairs’” or “refer to the alleged ‘sexual misconduct on the President’s part.’”
Now everybody in the House has the rules and knows what’s expected of them. And since we’re still close to the start of the school year, perhaps everyone can place those rules in their Congressional Trapper Keeper for quick reference.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.