Shouting ‘Liar’ in a Crowded Congress
The big news surrounding President Obama’s latest heathcare speech is that South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” in response to the claim that illegal immigrants would not be covered under universal coverage:
AP (“Obama heckled by GOP during speech to Congress“):
The nastiness of August reached from the nation’s town halls into the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday as President Barack Obama tried to move his health care plan forward.
South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” after Obama had talked about illegal immigrants. It wasn’t the only interruption during Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress in the House of Representatives. Earlier, Republicans laughed when Obama acknowledged that there are still significant details to be worked out before a health overhaul can be passed.
Wilson’s outburst caused Obama to pause briefly before he went on with his speech. Overhead in the visitors’ gallery, first Lady Michelle Obama shook her head from side to side.
Carl Hulse, NYT (“In Lawmaker’s Outburst, a Rare Breach of Protocol“):
In an angry and very audible outburst, Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, interrupted President Obama’s speech Wednesday night with a shout of “You lie!”
His eruption — in response to Mr. Obama’s statement that Democratic health proposals would not cover illegal immigrants — stunned members of both parties in the House chamber.
Democrats said it showed lack of respect for the office of the presidency and was reminiscent of Republican disruptions at recent public forums on health care. “It is outrageous,” said Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York, who said it reminded him of the “antics that are being used to disrupt and fog what is going on.” After the speech, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff who sat a few rows in front of Mr. Wilson, said he immediately approached senior Republican lawmakers to encourage them to identify the heckler and urge him to issue an apology quickly. “No president has ever been treated like that. Ever,” Mr. Emanuel said. Other Democrats said they did not want to dwell on the outburst or allow it to overshadow what they saw as an effective address by the president. But they also said it bolstered their contention that some Republicans were not interested in constructive dialogue, and they noted that Democratic plans specifically barred coverage for illegal immigrants.
Republicans also said the heckling was out of line. “I think we ought to treat the president with respect,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, “and anything other than that is not appropriate.”
Mr. Wilson seemed rattled in the wake of his comment, and quickly left the chamber at the end of the speech. His office later issued an apology, saying: “This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the president’s remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill. While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.” Mr. Wilson also phoned the White House and reached Mr. Emanuel, who accepted an apology on behalf of the president.
Critical body language and murmurs of disapproval are typical at presidential addresses and part of the political theater. But members of both parties were trying to recollect such a pointed attack from an individual lawmaker at a presidential address and noted that a similar remark could draw a formal reprimand if delivered at a routine session of the House.
The apology was appropriate and, I’m guessing*, sincere. Such outbursts are inappropriate in civil debate, let alone when directed at the only elected representative of the nation as a whole. Bill Clinton was treated with more respect while under formal impeachment charges.
While Wilson’s frustrated cry was inexcusable, however, it’s at least understandable. After all, Obama was indirectly calling him a liar. And being untruthful. From the speech:
Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.
There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false — the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally. And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up — under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place. [emphasis added]
This, incidentally, was the from the prepared remarks, not off-the-cuff flourish. The president was deliberately poisoning the well, claiming that his opponents are dishonorable and ill-intentioned. And, as AllahPundit and Mark Tapscott point out, the bill will of course cover illegal aliens. Even the Congressional Research Service says so.
“Under H.R. 3200, a ‘Health Insurance Exchange’ would begin operation in 2013 and would offer private plans alongside a public option…H.R. 3200 does not contain any restrictions on noncitzens—whether legally or illegally present, or in the United States temporarily or permanently—participating in the Exchange.” CRS also notes that the bill has no provision for requiring those seeking coverage or services to provided proof of citizenship.
Indeed, as an Obama official interviewed on NPR this morning admits, the administration has moved the ball in the other direction, removing existing restrictions requiring people to provide proof of citizenship to get various federal benefits on the grounds that they were too onerous and causing those legitimately eligible to give up or be denied. That may well be the right thing to do (I don’t know the specifics well enough to render definitive judgment) but it nonetheless vitiates the claim that there’s some magic wall to prevent the twelve million-odd illegal aliens from gaining access.
Beyond that, simple logic tells you that illegal aliens will be covered under any system of universal coverage. Aside from the plain meaning of the word universal, we have laws in this country requiring unquestioned treatment at emergency rooms for anyone who shows up. The Supreme Court ruled more than a quarter century ago in Pyler v. Doe that the Equal Protection Clause requires that children of known illegal aliens be given free elementary and secondary education in public schools. It’s hard to justify a rationale that requires paying to educate children while denying them health care.
UPDATE: Phillip Klein points to a 2005 Media Matters piece noting that Congressmen expressing displeasure with presidents by booing has been going on for some time. I suppose yelling, “You lie!” is worse than booing but it’s worth noting that the idea of Congress as a bastion of civility is being oversold.
UPDATE 2: Via Taegan Goddard, I see that PolitiFact has a longish piece arguing that “Obama can make a pretty thorough case that reform doesn’t apply to those here illegally. We don’t find the public option argument enough to make the case that Obama ‘lied.’ We rate Wilson’s statement False.” I invite you to read it for yourself but I find it unpersuasive.
Politifact misapprehends how our system works, operating from the premise that laws only do what they specifically say. And since the law doesn’t say illegal aliens are covered, QED, they aren’t. In reality, new entitlements operate in a very complex existing ecosystem. Unless the law not only excludes illegal aliens but provides very strong provisions for actually doing so — and it does not — the reality is that illegal aliens will be covered.
*Before this morning, the only “Joe Wilson” I knew was married to Valerie Plame. I gather from the news accounts, though, that he was surprised and flustered by the outburst and embarrassed at the spectacle he’d created.