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Why did the House have to change the rules so Pelosi could call Trump’s tweets ‘racist’?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) said July 16 that President Trump's tweets were "disgraceful and disgusting." (Video: U.S. Capitol)
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For the first time since 1984, a House speaker’s words were taken down from the official record on Tuesday. At least at first.

What was meant to be an hour-long debate over President Trump’s tweets about four Democratic congresswomen turned into a 4½-hour kerfuffle over decorum and arcane House rules that began when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the president’s tweets racist.

“Every single member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the president’s racist tweets,” Pelosi said from the House well. “To do anything less would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people.”

Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) immediately asked whether Pelosi wanted to rephrase her remarks, then moved to have Pelosi’s words taken down from the Congressional Record, a rarely used procedure, especially when it involves the speaker of the House.

“I have cleared my remarks with the parliamentarian before I read them,” Pelosi replied.

What followed was more than three hours of back-and-forth over Pelosi’s words, which included a shocking moment when Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) abandoned the House chair, leaving no one to preside over the proceedings.

After 90 minutes, the House ruled the words out of order, as no member can call the president “racist” on the House floor, according to Thomas Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which was written by Jefferson when he presided over the Senate and which the House adopted in 1837. Ironically, Pelosi appears to have violated House rules again during this process by leaving the chamber while her remarks were under review.

The ruling against Pelosi only further delayed the process.

First, Republicans moved to have Pelosi’s words removed from the Congressional Record. Then Democrats moved to reinstate Pelosi’s speaking privileges for the day (under House rules, if a member’s words are out of order, the member is barred from speaking on the House floor for the rest of the legislative day). But since the House is a majority-run chamber, Democrats voted to reinstate Pelosi’s speaking privileges and keep her words in the record.

Three and a half hours after debate began on the resolution condemning Trump’s tweets, the House returned to debate and eventually passed the resolution at 6:51 p.m. (Remember, the debate was scheduled for an hour of House floor time when it began at 2:15 p.m.)

Pelosi wasn’t the only member to violate House rules Tuesday, but she was the only one reprimanded for it. At least six lawmakers directly called Trump’s tweets “racist” on the House floor, according to C-SPAN closed captioning. Other lawmakers avoided using Trump’s name while calling him racist.

“Birtherism is racist,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said. “Saying a Mexican judge cannot be fair because of his heritage is racist. Saying immigrants from Mexico are rapists is racist. Telling four members of this body to ‘go home’ because of where you believe they are from is racist. There is racism coming out of the White House.”

The resolution itself, titled “Condemning President Trump’s racist comments directed at Members of Congress,” also likely violated House rules.

But perhaps most ironic, as Republicans slammed Democrats for violating the House rules, they themselves were also violating said rules.

“On page 1 of the original Thomas Jefferson Manual of Parliamentary Practice, he writes, ‘That it is the very material that order, decency and regularity be preserved in a dignified public body,’ ” Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on the House floor, waving around Jefferson’s manual. “Our rules of order and decency were broken today, and worse, the House just voted to condone this violation of decorum.”

McCarthy failed to mention that it is a violation of House rules to use Jefferson’s manual as a prop.