In light of health-care debate, what America needs is a civility committee

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, March 21, 2010; A02

On its way to Sunday's big vote, health-care reform made a final stop on Saturday before the House Rules Committee -- or, in this case, the House Unruly Committee.

"This process corrupts and prostitutes the system" was the opening accusation from Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.). Phrases such as "banana republic," "cultural war" and even a lighthearted "So's your uncle" filled the air.

The dialogue, often captured in the closed captioning of C-SPAN as "[Inaudible conversations]" went something like this:

"I didn't say that."

"It's a subversion of the process."

"No it's not."

[Murmur, murmur.]

"Joe, he's gonna sign -- "

"My friend --"

"Let me just -- "

"Sign a bill -- "

"Let's be calm."

One member of the panel took pity on the stenographer. "The reporter can't hear," he pleaded.

After another such tangle, the committee's chairwoman, 80-year-old Louise Slaughter, appealed for order. "I want people to stop talking over each other," instructed the New York Democrat, who still retains her native Kentucky accent. "It's always been polite up here."

But not on Saturday.

Outside, it got downright ugly as several thousand Tea Party activists staged a rally and then stormed House office buildings, heckling lawmakers they found inside. The conservative activists shouted at two black members of Congress, according to Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), who told reporters that he and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights legend, were subjected to a racial slur.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the majority whip, had a similar report on the demonstrators. "I haven't heard such talk since the civil rights movement," he said later. A Clyburn spokeswoman told reporters that a protester had spit on another African American, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).

And another protester yelled a homophobic insult at Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), an openly gay legislator, as he walked in one of the House office buildings, according to a report by Talking Points Memo.

Even without the slurs, the demonstrators were plenty menacing, standing on the lawn between the House chamber and the House office buildings, chanting "Kill the bill!" and waving signs with such messages as "Buck Ofama."

The din wasn't audible in the Rules Committee room, perhaps because the lawmakers were making so much of their own noise. They jabbered for seven hours before taking up a single amendment to the bill.

Much of the argument was over the "Slaughter Solution," under which House Democrats planned to "deem and pass" the Senate health-care bill into law without a direct vote. The dispute would become moot later in the day (Democratic leaders decided to pass on deem and pass and kill the Slaughter Solution). But that was too late to avoid hours of charges and countercharges in the room.

"We are about to unleash a cultural war in this country!" warned Barton.

"I appreciate that you're the bluebird of happiness," Slaughter replied.

A couple of hours later, Rep. David Dreier (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the committee, read to his colleagues a report from The Washington Post's Web site saying the Democrats had abandoned "deem and pass."

This came as a surprise to some of those on the committee, who were supposed to be the ones making the rules.

Barton softened his earlier accusations of corruption, prostitution and cultural war. "Y'all have maintained the integrity of the institution," he offered.

That left the lawmakers time to argue about other things. In the tiny hearing room, committee chairmen and their Republican counterparts crowded around a table as lawmakers on the dais, some in shirt sleeves, lunched on Subway sandwiches and chickpea salad. The committee gives each member unlimited time to speak -- and seemingly unlimited opportunities to interrupt each other.

"Madam Chair, you don't have order," Dreier said to Slaughter as she tried to start the session. It didn't change much after that.

Republicans gave sour denunciations of the health-care bill. Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, proclaimed that Americans "don't want the federal government involved in personal health care" -- a claim that would seem to rule out Medicare.

Slaughter, in turn, accused one of the Republicans of trying to abolish Medicare, while Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) offered his view that the Republican "prescription for health care was 'Take two tax breaks and call me in the morning.' "

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) told McGovern that he should "be embarrassed" about the high insurance premiums in his home state. McGovern retorted that Massachusetts is "paying for people in Texas" who don't have insurance.

Rep. Pete Sessions (Tex.), head of the House Republicans' 2010 campaign effort, vowed to change things "next year, when we're in the majority." Soon after that, he announced, "I'm a 'no' vote" and walked out of the room.

"I was going to put you as 'undecided,' " McGovern retorted.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company