REP. Maxine Waters (D) of California broke the comity rule abruptly during an unsightly back and forth with her fellow representatives on the House Banking Committee. During the Whitewater hearings last week she told one of them to ``shut up!'' She thereby took the words out of the mouths of a huge percentage of her fellow citizens.
But this is Congress, and people don't talk to each other that way in Congress. The chairman, Henry Gonzalez (D) of Texas, finally made Ms. Waters be quiet, threatening to send her to the principal's office or something like that.
We don't want this to happen again. So to benefit Ms. Waters, and anyone else who wants a little comity around the house, here are the accepted ways around congressional billingsgate. The term is comity, which means play nice, or at least fight nice.
In the Congress you say ``shut up'' as follows: ``Will the gentleman suspend?,'' which means to stop his remarks. The verb comes from ``suspended animation,'' such as might happen to the gentleman if he were caught in a freezer locker overnight. Sometimes ``gentleman'' means ``you,'' sometimes ``the horrible person I must interrupt.'' The gentleman (or gentlewoman) then has the choice of suspending his remarks or going on as if he hasn't heard. You then repeat, ``Will the gentleman suspend? Will the gentleman suspend?'' This has the same effect as yelling, ``Shut up! Shut up!'' The train of the gentleman's remarks is interrupted. He finally suspends. You then talk until he tells you to ``shut up'' by saying, ``If I may reclaim my time.'' He repeats this until you stop talking.
But Republicans have a new take on the rules of comity: They ignore them. Republican congressmen, especially newer ones, see no reason to stop talking simply because they have been told to do so by committee chairmen. Frustrated by their minority status, they know that the prospect of a brawl will make the cameras swing toward them. They playact the role of embattled underdogs, hoping to gain with hot air and hostility what they can't get with votes. Normally they would refer to Democrats as ``my colleague from the other side of the aisle,'' or ``the gentleman from the Great State of Whatever.'' No more. Now they attack and keep on attacking, on the theory that disruption is in their favor.
Regrettably, contentiousness is on the rise in society. Congressmen assume they can adopt the prevalent attitude.
The tactic of disruption is hard to beat. And that is why the rules of comity were enacted in the first place. The greater the chance of precipitous disagreement, the greater the need to be nice to each other. Ms. Waters has been in several unseemly fights lately stemming from her theory that women in government are subject to gender bias. She may well have a point, but she shouldn't have told her esteemed colleague to shut up. The record will show he didn't pay any attention. He kept right on talking.
There's a moral to all this, which is that some day the Republicans may be the majority in the House and may wield the gavel over the Banking Committee. And if they now introduce provocative obstreperous noisome disregard for comity, they may have to deal with the same practices without any appeal to the traditions of mutual respect. That's the moral. But as they say on the way to the forum, morals tomorrow. Comity tonight. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.