Commentary: Legislators, behaving badly?

Jun 15, 2012

You couldn’t say yesterday was a slow news day. We learned that Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, would join Governor Rick Snyder today to announce the new bridge over the Detroit River.

The Michigan House of Representatives voted to slash the state income tax over the next six years, without, however, explaining how the state is expected to pay for the services it needs.

We learned the Michigan Supreme Court will apparently decide whether the Emergency Manager repeal goes on the ballot in November, and we found out that Detroit finally seems to be getting serious about the consent agreement, as their city council moved to fill the last necessary positions needed.

But none of that was the buzz on the street yesterday. Everyone I knew was talking incessantly about the incident in which two women representatives, both Democrats, were disciplined and not allowed to speak for violating the decorum of the house.

Now, there is a long tradition of lawmakers failing to play nice with others. Democrats seem to have a bigger problem with this. Just last week, State Representative Harvey Santana was stripped of his committee assignments after the sergeants at arms had to break up a near-physical confrontation he had with another representative. Santana, who may have a problem with anger management, has gotten into two such situations with two different lawmakers recently, both fellow Democrats.

Indeed, Democrats don’t always get along. John Kelly once punched out Gil DiNello on the floor of the state senate, and back in the seventies, Ann Arbor’s Perry Bullard was bopped on the head with an ashtray, when the legislature still had ashtrays.

But what happened this week was different. State Representative Lisa Brown, outraged that Republicans were rushing through a bill meant to stifle abortion rights, said these now-famous words, “I’m flattered that you are all so interested in my vagina, but no means no." Her colleague, Barbara Byrum, cleverly introduced an amendment to put the same restrictions on men seeking vasectomies and, when she wasn’t allowed to speak, shouted the word vasectomy. The two V-words scandalized the Republican leadership, who then banned the women from speaking on the House floor.

That was highly inappropriate. Lawmakers are supposed to be able to say whatever they want in a legislative forum, which is why they have absolute immunity from libel prosecution. Brown’s comment was a bit shocking. She wanted to get people’s attention, and succeeded. But it was less offensive, in this old white male’s view, than those of Republican legislators who routinely label social welfare programs “socialistic” or “communistic."

Nor is anybody disciplining Detroit lawmakers who regularly accuse those criticizing their city’s finances of having a “plantation mentality,” or seeking to reimpose slavery.

The suspicion is very strong that some people are very uncomfortable with women talking about sexuality. Lisa Brown, by the way, is leaving the legislature. She is running for clerk in Oakland County, where, in recent years, educated and professional women have been leaving the GOP in droves, partly because of these kinds of attitudes. It would be deeply ironic if those who muzzled her this week inadvertently helped her campaign.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.