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What constitutes a political “lie?”

Granted, he wasn’t as plainspoken as U.S. Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson, but Washington’s Legislature had its own “Joe Wilson moment” in 2006 when Rep. Gary Alexander (R-Olympia), wrote in a newsletter that Democrats were displaying a lack of honesty with the taxpayers.

Being in the majority, House Democrats promptly had a hissy fit and, prompted by Chief Clerk Rich Nafziger’s labeling of the language as “mud slinging,” extended the rule that forbids lawmakers from insulting each other in floor speeches.

They decided it was no longer allowable for one member to refer to another in government-funded writings as “lacking in honesty with the taxpayers” or be called “tax and spend liberals” or “disingenuous.”

They could continue to say what they please at news conferences, etc., but so long as they were communicating with the use of taxpayer money, they had to keep it clean. Republicans were fin-bus, of course. How can a Republican give a political speech without calling Democrats tax and spend liberals? Isn’t truth a defense? And I couldn’t see why saying someone is lacking in honesty is so offensive. Saying your opponent is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg may be carrying it too far but how else can you let the public know someone is a liar without coming right out and saying it?

Now, in 2007, along comes the state Supreme Court ruling that a law enacted in 1999 barring political candidates from making false statements was a violation of the First Amendment right of free speech. The opinion came as a result of a lawsuit brought by a House member whose opponent accused him of voting to shut down a state institution in his district when, in fact, he voted against the shutdown.

There was a big flap over that for awhile with the voters perceiving the opinion as politicians being given a right to lie but the fuss soon faded on account of, I suspect, people regarded practically everything politicians say as lies.

I called the House chief clerk’s office to find out what the situation is today. Do the rules still specifically forbid accusations of a lack of honesty, etc., and what effect did the court decision have on that?

Counsel Tim Sekerak told me that the rules on decorum had loosened up a bit since then. The original phrases condemned in 2006 aren’t referred to in the revised rules, which warn members not to impugn other members or their motives.

“Profane, abusive or indecent language is not permitted in any context (including quotes)” said Sekerak. Members can use strong language but it must not be disrespectful of other members. The debate should be on the opinions and feelings of the member doing the talking, not statements about others.

And the court opinion? “That was a matter of constitutional principle, “he said, and does not involve the House rules on decorum because the rules can only be forced on members so they are not a violation of anybody else’s rights.

There’s an old saying or a song, I think, that goes “It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it.” Scott Harrington of the Wharton School wrote an article jn the Wall Street Journal in which he spelled out the misstatements on health insurance in the president’s speech, saying responsible reform requires careful analysis of the problems. “The president’s continued demonization of private health insurance in pursuit of his broad agenda of government expansion is inconsistent with that objective.”

Translation: He lied.

(Adele Ferguson can be reached at P.O. Box 69. Hansville, WA., 98340)

 
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