I don’t claim to be an expert on parliamentary procedure and precedence in the British House of Commons. But I can say one thing: Congress would sure be a helluva lot more fun if the U.S. adopted a couple of Parliament’s traditions here.
Upheaval in Parliament commanded global headlines the past few weeks as it wrestles with Brexit - arguably the greatest existential threat to the United Kingdom since World War II.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson fought with fellow conservatives and even banished a few from Parliament, including Winston Churchill’s grandson. Retiring Speaker Jon Bercow has emerged as an internet sensation. I mean, could you imagine House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) bickering with her members the way Bercow does?
One wonders if Pelosi could verbally incinerate a heckling backbencher with a rhetorical projectile worthy of Bercow’s sermons.
“I’m not remotely interested in your pettifogging objections!” sneered Bercow from the Speaker’s chair at one Member of Parliament (MP). “I don’t give a flying flamingo.”
To the uninitiated, “pettifogging” is the act of placing undue emphasis on picayune details. And for the record, flamingos usually only fly at night. One also can’t envision Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) telling Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) he doesn’t “give a flying flamingo” about his views on legislation. That said, Schumer did exclaim “Shame! Shame on him!” the other day regarding McConnell. This came after McConnell characterized a Democratic press conference on gun violence with Dayton, OH Mayor Nan Whaley (D) as “theatrics.”
However, the Democratic party ought to tell its presidential contenders that the first candidate to dispatch one of their rivals with the “flying flamingo” retort at the next debate will claim the nomination by acclamation.
The British House of Commons, like most parliamentary assemblies around the world, have a mace. The mace is essentially a physical symbol of the power of each legislative body. In ancient Rome, the mace was a battle weapon. In the case of Great Britain, the mace is a five-foot silver rod, festooned with roses and stems winding around a crown at the top. It’s believed the British mace dates back to King Charles II and the 17th Century. There was a dramatic moment late last year when one MP swiped the mace from its resting space in the chamber in an act of protest and bolted for the exit.
“Order! Put it back! No, no!” admonished Bercow.
The House of Representatives also has a mace kept in the office of Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving. It’s nearly four feet tall and bound with silver strands. Only House officials ever handle the mace – and then, with white gloves to protect its integrity. House officials always escort the mace into the dais in the chamber when the body meets each day. But its not unheard of for the House to present the mace in front of a member if they get out of line. The last known instance came in 1994. House officials nearly brandished the mace in front of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) after a verbal altercation on the floor.
One wonders if a House member here might ever consider trying to abscond with the mace the way the Labour MP did some months ago. It might not do much for parliamentary decorum. But it would certainly stir a fuss in Congress.
Nothing against the mace in the House of Representatives. But the House might consider upping its mace game and follow the lead of two Canadian maces. We’re not even talking about a mace in Ottawa. Try Iqaluit, Nunavut, the most northerly territory in Canada, and, Edmonton, the provincial capital of Alberta.
The mace for the legislative assembly in Nunavut features a typical “crown” on the top to respect the British monarch, a two-and-a-quarter carat diamond and even an insignia reminiscent of a fleur-de-lis. But the body of the mace is covered with narwhal tusk, jutting out from the sides like a weapon straight out of Game of Thrones.
The original mace in Alberta was a real piece of work – and an afterthought. When Alberta became a province in 1905, the assembly realized it lacked a mace. So they scrambled together to construct a homemade mace. Officials taped together a plumbing pipe, brass knobs from a bed, the handle of a shaving mug and, to top it all off, the round float from a toilet tank. Alberta used that mace for decades.
But without question, the most fascinating tradition in the British Parliament which Congress should appropriate is the role of the Black Rod.
Yes. There is an official from the House of Lords actually called the Black Rod.
The Black Rod sounds like an archvillain from "The Avengers." Think the Green Goblin or the Red Skull. Perhaps Natasha Romanov can get involved somehow. After all, she’s the Black Widow.
Anyway, the Black Rod is kind of an “usher” who dresses like the character on a bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch. Kind of a British version of Colonel Sanders. The Black Rod carries, surprise, a rod. When Parliament meets, MP’s deliberately slam the door in the face of the Black Rod. He or she then knocks three times on the Parliament door for admission. MP’s shut the door to symbolize an independence of Parliament from the Monarch.
And when Parliament ceases to meet, the Black Rod appears in the chamber to escort the the Speaker out of the chamber. Sarah Clarke currently serves as the Black Rod. Bercow didn’t initially accompany Clarke out of the chamber this time, considering the strife in Parliament and the imbroglio over Brexit. But after firing off a few snide remarks from the Speaker’s chair, Bercow finally stood down and Parliament was finished for a few weeks.
No one could imagine a Black Rod in the U.S. House escorting Pelosi anywhere.
For the record, when Congress finishes its session, it’s said the House and Senate adjourn “sine die.” That’s Latin for “without a future date.” It’s pronounced “sigh-nee-DY.” When Parliament adjourns, such is the case now, it’s called “prorogation.” That’s alright. It’s just as hard to pronounce as sine die.
Adopting a few customs from other parliamentary systems would certainly make Congress a little more intriguing. Debate on the House and Senate floor is sometimes rather stale. Dialing things up a notch or two in the Bercow model would at least make it more amusing.
And if you don’t like the suggestions, I don’t give a flying flamingo.