In the past couple months, Americans have been given a glimpse into the inner workings of state legislatures. Beginning with the now famous “Tennessee Three,” there has been an uptick in expulsion as a tactic to enforce the rules of a legislature. Many have called these enforcements anti-democratic, or even illegal, in the case of Montana legislator Zooey Zephyr. While these measures are harsh, they are not inherently undemocratic or illegal.
Every legislature or similar deliberative body operates under a set of rules. From Congress to your local town council, each have written rules and operating procedures that allow them to do their job. It allows debate to occur, legislation to pass, and and the business of the people to be done. Those rules, such as those in question with the Montana and Tennessee legislatures, often involve “decorum” (how people act on the floor as members). The enforcement of these rules is vital to the conduct of any legislative session.
Accordingly, only one group of people can enforce these rules: the members of the legislature. They are the ones that ultimately decide what is a breach of the rules and, in some instances, how to reprimand people for breaking them. That is why it is totally in the legislature’s power, and not the courts, to enforce rules. Montana District Court Judge Mike Menahan was correct in his decision not to reinstate Representative Zephyr to the legislature over the expressed desire of the legislature. While admittedly harsh, the expulsion of the “Tennessee Three” and Representative Zephyr was, technically, within the bounds of the respective legislatures’ rules.
However, just because the rules allow for something does not mean it’s the correct political decision. When the Tennessee and Montana legislature voted to expel their respective members, they committed two grave errors: they stifled parliamentary precedent and law while elevating these local issues to a national level, bringing negative attention to the GOP. One of the underlying principles of parliamentary law, which is the basis for the rules in many legislatures worldwide, is that membership rights like speaking on the floor should only be suspended as a last resort. In the case of the “Tennessee Three,” the House should’ve reprimanded and suspended them from floor proceedings for a definite period of time or for business related to gun control (the topic they were protesting). In the case of Zephyr, frankly speaking, nothing should have happened. The utterance of one remark does not constitute a grave breach of decorum so far to remove floor privileges for an entire term in office.
Both scenarios have conjured an incredibly negative view of the GOP that they must fight to reframe. By forcefully silencing the opposition or even expelling them from office, it creates the image that the GOP is afraid of debate. This is contrary to the message the GOP has been trying to push for the last several years; we are the party of free speech and open debate, while the left is the party that silences opposition. I still believe that this is overarchingly true. Conservative voices are often silenced on college campuses or in the national media, but why stoop to that level? This wasn’t enforcement of the rules where an offending member is forced to be seated or a disruptive member is removed from the chamber. This was weaponizing the rules against those that disagree to silence them indefinitely. This allows the media to paint a negative image of the GOP creating backlash and problems across the country. Instead, the GOP should be focused on winning elections, and these action further hurt our chances in the coming years. The old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me” applies here. The GOP cannot turn minor disruptions into a bigger problem for themselves. There is no redeeming quality in being overly sensitive toward those that disagree with you, no matter how absurd their views. The party can do better, and will do better in the future.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.