Darrell Issa and the Historical Shadow of the Gag Rule

Darrell Issa (R-CA) does NOT approve of you speaking like that!

You’re talking, my friend, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is soooo not cool with that!

Poor Darrell Issa. For years, the hard-charging GOP Congress-critter has been on a Quixotic quest to destroy what he believes to be the multi-tentacled scandal beast at the heart of the Obama administration. Since his party of curmudgeonly gremlins took control of Congress back in 2010, the California representative has planted himself as the lead inquisitor-chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and over the last three years or so, he’s investigated everything from the alleged liberal causes of the 2008 financial crisis, to the supposed job-killing effects of government regulation, to the existence of Bigfoot.

Okay, I made that last one up, but suffice to say that Issa has made it his goal to find everything rotten in government and place the blame for that rot squarely on the shoulders of the Obama Administration. Indeed, the guy is so delusional that it’d be none-too-surprising if he concluded that Bigfoot was working as a secret environmental agent for liberal activist groups.

Issa’s been especially busy in 2014. His main concerns have been non-scandals like Benghazi, the supposed IRS effort to target conservative dark-money organizations who applied for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status (it turns out the agency also targeted left-wing groups too), and the so-called “Fast and Furious” scandal. The latter involved a scheme in which ATF agents tried to snare border gun runners who’ve been funneling firearms to Mexican drug cartels. This ill-conceived program was implemented by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and while a host of problems plagued the effort, the Right’s favorite talking point – that Attorney General Eric Holder intentionally allowed guns to fall into cartel hands – has long been debunked.

But none of this matters to Darrell Issa, because he’s on a mission to bring the Obama Administration down for the crime of being (allegedly) liberal. And so this week Issa was still hammering away at the phony IRS scandal, trying to get IRS official Lois Lerner to answer questions about the agency’s supposed targeting of right-wing money groups. As TPM reports, when the hearing got heated, ranking committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) tried to argue that even after a multi-year investigation, the committee found no evidence of a political conspiracy at the IRS, though some mismanagement was identified. Issa, apparently perturbed by a Democrat voicing an opinion in a Congressional investigation, abruptly cut Cummings’ mic, after which Cummings accused Issa of disrespecting a fellow congressman and directing “a one-sided investigation.”

Although Issa eventually apologized to Cummings, the reaction to Issa’s cutting a Democratic colleague’s mic was swift and justifiably critical. Salon’s Joan Walsh called Issa’s behavior “Thuggish,” and concluded that “He’s [Issa] trying to shame the White House, and Cummings makes a great stand-in.” The New York Times’ David Firestone rightly notes that when Congressional minority members are silenced, “it makes the majority look like a bunch of insecure authoritarians.” It’s that whole “authoritarian” angle that made Issa’s behavior especially galling, particularly given the U.S. Congress’s history of authoritarian-style silencing of dissenting views that have ultimately turned out to be right on target. Issa’s move echoes back to one particularly onerous Congressional policy: the Gag Rule.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will not be gagged by the GOP's own Don Quixote.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will not be gagged by the GOP’s own Don Quixote.

In the mid to late 1830s, the abolitionist movement in the United States finally began to muster some political power after years of being relegated to fringe sects like the Quakers. And the anti-slavery agitators were up against a very real threat: the Slave Power. Thanks to the efforts of southern political power-players like President Andrew Jackson and his northern collaborator/lacky, New York’s Martin Van Buren, the Democratic Party in the mid-nineteenth century solidified itself around a commitment to pro-slavery ideals. Of course, slaveholders benefitted politically from a Congressional boost in representation guaranteed by the Constitution via the ownership of human property.

The Democrats at the time were especially effective, at least until about 1860, at maintaining party discipline (imagine that: the Democrats were once a disciplined political party!) with regards to supporting slavery. The two-thirds rule at Democratic National Conventions ensured that southern support was a prerequisite for receiving the party’s presidential nomination, and southern support meant supporting slavery. As historian Daniel Walker Howe notes in What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, his mammoth, but essential account of the Jacksonian Era, “in shaping the Democratic Party the way they did, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren forged the instrument that would transform the minority proslavery interest into a majority that would dominate American politics until 1861.”* A key component in maintaining a pro-slavery political majority was combating anti-slavery agitation, and that’s where the Gag Rule came in.

Initially, abolitionists tried to protest slavery by sending anti-slavery mailings directly to southern mailboxes via the postal system, but pro-slavery interests in Congress collaborated with the Postmaster General to ban the mass-mailing of all anti-slavery literature. Shut out of the post office, abolitionists turned to circulating mass anti-slavery petitions in Congress and urging for the open discussion of abolitionism within the House. In response, the Slave Power in Congress passed a series of so-called Gag Rules from 1836 to 1840 that blocked any and all congressional discussions of anti-slavery ideas in an effort to prevent abolitionists from influencing the public sentiment on slavery.

Among the most vociferous opponents of the Gag Rule was former president John Quincy Adams, who undermined the rule at every turn by defending abolitionists’ constitutional rights to petition Congress. Adams – who also coined the term “Gag” in reference to the banning of anti-slavery discussion – read petitions at the beginning of congressional sessions before the rules could be adopted, then forced a vote on the right to implement the Gag. Adams also made congressional committees do their jobs and thoroughly examine anti-slavery petitions in order to determine if the language therein qualified as Gag-worthy, thereby forcing discussion on a topic the Gag was supposed to silence entirely.

John Quincy Adams: propoent of both epic chops and petitioning Congress

John Quincy Adams: proponent of both epic chops and petitioning Congress.

The efforts of Adams – and thousands of anti-slavery petitioners – brought plenty of heat down on the congressional Slave Power, drawing boatloads of attention to the abolitionist cause. Much to southern Democrats’ dismay, the controversy over the Gag Rule brought extra attention to an issue that was supposed to be gagged, as more anti-slavery petitions bearing tens-of-thousands of signatures poured into Congress.* Indeed, the entire Gag Rule brouhaha reinforced a by-now old rule in American politics: when you try to suppress legitimate grievances in the name of political gain, you run the risk of empowering the very people you want to marginalize.

And thus we come back full-circle to Darrell Issa. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman not only tried to gag Elijah Cummings from speaking, he’s also tried to gag any and all information that might undermine his quest to tar the Obama Administration with scandal after scandal. Through his bone-headed actions, Issa is invoking an ugly authoritarian aspect of the Congressional past. By silencing Cummings, who is, of course, African-American, Issa provided the uncomfortable image of a white speaker silencing a black colleague in a manner that evoked a rule once used by white supremacists to silence discussion about ending black slavery in America. Having endured far-worse attempts to block black political participation, Cummings called out Issa’s shenanigans until the Republican chairman finally apologized.

The brief spat between Issa and Cummings speaks to larger issues of decorum and democracy in the chamber that’s supposed to most closely represent the interests of average Americans. The House of Representatives, like other institutions in the American system, has on occasion been captured by the thuggery of authoritarianism. Such incidents are ugly stains on the House and shouldn’t be repeated in any century. Darrell Issa is free to continue swinging his chairmanship at scandalous Democratic windmills, but he’d better not complain when someone like Cummings points out the loads of Republican malarkey that such bravado is trying to conceal.

* See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 512-515.

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