An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Rep. Joe Wilson was censured for yelling during President Barack Obama's 2009 address before a joint session of Congress. Wilson was reprimanded, not censured. This version has been updated.
What has happened to the House of Representatives? They say that, as you age, you start to resemble older relatives. And not always in the ways you would want. So it is with the once-decorous Congress — or at least, that’s how it looks from this side of the pond. Those of us who stayed up late enough to witness Biden’s speech watched with the haughty amusement of an elder sibling as the chamber descended into the kind of cacophony reminiscent of the much-older mother of all parliaments here in the U.K.
Wild gesticulating and hoo-hawing seems so unbecoming stateside. We in Britain thought you’d ironed out that sort of behavior a couple hundred years ago, even if a Republican was reprimanded for yelling “you lie” during President Barack Obama’s 2009 address to a joint session of Congress. Over here, of course, we’re used to our politicians acting out a scene from an 18th-century gin house, hollering and whooping, waving their arms and bits of paper in the air to signal opposition, or sometimes support.
And yet. A line in the parliamentary sand was crossed in the U.S. House on Tuesday night. A taboo broken. A word uttered that is so vile even British politicians aren’t supposed to say it out loud.
Idiot? Fine. Dimwit, dunce — these are all above board.
But never “liar.”
The website of Britain’s Parliament lists several other words that have, in the long history of vituperation in the House of Commons, led to objections: “blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, swine, stool pigeon and traitor” — most of which were probably last uttered a couple of centuries back.
The anti-liar policy is dead serious. In 2021, Labour MP Dawn Butler said then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson had “lied to the House of Commons and country over and over again.” This was a step too far. Butler was told to withdraw her comment, and when she refused, the speaker ordered her to be temporarily excluded from the chamber.
Scottish National Party MP Ian Blackford is a serial offender. He has accused both Theresa May and Johnson of being liars in Parliament. The first time, Blackford was given a rap on the knuckles. The second time, he left the chamber before any punishment could be dished out.
Not everyone agrees with the no-liar policy. John Bercow, the tenor-voiced former speaker of the House of Commons from 2009 through 2019, has argued that members of Parliament should be allowed to call each other liars. (Though Bercow himself was later accused of bullying and lying.)
But for now, the policy remains, and knowing how we love tradition around here, it is likely to last a good while. Our lawmakers find ways around it, though. Sometimes, they complain of untruths, misleading statements or outright fibs. And that’s when you know they’re really angry.