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And another folk hero is born

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted September 14, 2009

Joe WilsonObamaCare has given birth to a second folk hero: Congressman Joe Wilson. As everyone here knows, Rep. Wilson is the fellow who shouted out "You lie!" during President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress. He later apologized to President Obama, through Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, and President Obama publicly accepted the apology. Nevertheless, he stands by the content of what he said – even if it's modified to "Obama spoke an untruth."

Because Rep. Wilson's heckle disrupted Congressional decorum, it's interesting to see that he has not (yet) apologized to Congress. Calls for his head are already floating around Capitol Hill, using rules that cover legislative sessions but not Presidential addresses. Rep. Wilson's Democratic opponent is estimated to have raised more than a million dollars in campaign funds as a result of the incident. Wilson himself is estimated to have raised $1 million . Because of the decorum breach, Rep. Wilson is far more controversial than Sarah Palin. She's hated basically for what she is; he's hated in large part because of what he did.

This incident is an ironist's dream. Many Democrats are hot under the collar because of Rep. Wilson's breach of Congressional tradition. Many of Rep. Wilson's defenders say that he should have belted it out (and stuck to his guns.) Some note that the Democrats behaved rudely to President Bush by booing during his 2005 State of the Union address; they cast Rep. Wilson's unruliness as payback. However, amongst his supporters, the dominant air is "it's about time." Democrats defending tradition, and conservatives gladdened to see a supposedly obstructive one broken, makes for quite the (ostensible) role reversal. 

The outrage over the breach seems strange to a foreigner like me. There's been heckling in the Canadian parliament for a lot longer than I've been alive, and the institution is none the worse for the wear. The same old partisanship is there, and so is the same old collegiality in the MPs' meeting room nearby. The presence of heckling changes a legislature only in one respect: increasing the feeling of being "on" when in the House itself. Some may see it as a bad thing, as it seems to encourage elected representatives to put on a "false face" during legislative sittings, but it's defensible as being a good thing. MPs, or elected officials in general, who treat the Legislative floor as a stage will be less inclined to get partisanly stubborn when off the "stage." Of course, heckling has long been rife in the Mother of Parliaments, Whitehall.

It's a fact that, when traditions are broken, new ones rise up. Humpty Dumpty may never be put back together again, but he's soon replaced by Plumpty Sumpty. In Canada and the U.K.'s case, a replacement tradition is seeing heckling as proof of importance. Many an MP has assumed that being heckled means his/her speech hit home in some way. For all I know, a Minister who hasn't been heckled may worry about having slipped below the radar.

Regarding the substance of Rep. Wilson's words, a certain latitude has to be granted for his use of the word "lie." Politics and emotionality usually go together, and emotional people use words that they would not have had they been calm. It's a rare man (or woman) who can use words with precision when angered. Hence, the charge of "baiting" [deliberately inducing an outburst] is a valid one in American politics. This tradition of latitude may itself be broken someday, but the people who can vault above the resultant bar may not be ones that Americans would like to see dominate U.S. electoral politics. They tend to hail from the horsey set, and/or the punctilio circuit.

That latitude is largely self-reversing, anyway. Most everyone understands that "lied" means "said a falsehood that he should have known was false." Few would claim it means that same as its standard definition – namely, "Obama knew what he was saying was false at the time that he said it."

Opinions actually differ about whether or not President Obama uttered a falsehood. According to FactCheck.org, Rep. Wilson's claim was false because of Section 246 on H.R. 3200: it reads, "NO FEDERAL PAYMENT FOR UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS…Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States." On the other hand, the briefing report "Treatment of Noncitizens in H.R. 3200" issued by the Congressional Research Service [pdf file] says that "H.R. 3200 does not contain any restrictions on [noncitizens] participating in the [proposed Health Insurance] Exchange—whether the noncitizens are legally or illegally present, or in the United States temporarily or permanently." [A summary of the report is here.]

The question really hinges on whether or not Sec. 246 is "boilerplate," or something tacked into the bill merely to avoid criticism. Boilerplate sections are not going to be enforced; they're just there to be pointed to. Earlier, an amendment to the bill which would have included enforcement provisions for the no-illegal-immigrants provision was rejected. Democrats, of course, can claim that such an amendment would have been superfluous. And Republicans can claim that the rejection is further proof of an unwritten nudge-wink in Sec. 246. When put together with the lack of an Exchange restriction, the Republicans do have a case. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan dances with the Grim Reaper.


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