Embarrassed by the House

Last modified: 5/22/2012 12:00:00 AM
In December 2010, on the day he officially became speaker of the New Hampshire House, Bill O'Brien urged his colleagues to "bring respect for colleagues" to the State House, to "bring solutions, not condemnations."

"Leave rhetoric, disparagement and condemnation to the editorial pages and blogs," O'Brien recommended.

Republican leaders that day said that despite their new, lopsided majority, they would work in a bipartisan fashion.

Nonetheless, a year and a half later, New Hampshire is being treated to the most unlikely and depressing political debate in years, spurred by recent antics on the floor of the House. When Republican Rep. Steve Vaillancourt rose to the defense of a Democrat he believed had been unfairly silenced by O'Brien last week, the speaker cut him off, and Vaillancourt responded, "Sieg Heil."

Which is worse, political watchers have asked themselves: a legislator using a Nazi-era salute on the floor of the House, or O'Brien shutting down debate by a member of the minority party? In other words, is it worse to imply that the House speaker is a dictator or for the House speaker to act in a dictatorial fashion? Shocking words or shocking deeds?

Honestly, are these our only choices these days?

There has been more than enough embarrassing behavior by the 2011-12 Legislature. This episode was aimed at O'Brien. Much of it has been condoned by him, ignored by him or committed by him.

At that same December 2010 meeting, for instance, when a Democratic lawmaker praised outgoing House Speaker Terie Norelli, it prompted a fit of apparently uncontrolled coughing from numerous Republicans in the room. Norelli herself was booed that day by opponents.

In the months that followed, residents have been treated to one spectacle after another:

• House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt called the bishop of Manchester a "pedophile pimp."

• A crowd of "birthers" in the House - trying mightily to keep President Obama's name off the New Hampshire ballot - shouted at the state Ballot Law Commission and mobbed an assistant attorney general, forcing him to take refuge in a locked room at the State House.

• A loud confrontation between O'Brien and Republican Rep. Susan Emerson over proposed amendments to the state budget led her to introduce legislation outlawing bullying at the State House.

• Amid a contentious budget debate, the speaker shut the House gallery not just to hecklers but also to the public in general.

• Republicans who have crossed the House leadership have been yanked from committee posts - a crowd that includes not just Vaillancourt but also Shawn Jasper, a serious, veteran lawmaker whom you might think O'Brien would want on his side.

• Epsom Rep. Tony Soltani has threatened to sue because O'Brien refuses to accommodate his physical disability with an aisle seat in the House chamber.

Moderate GOP lawmakers have described an atmosphere so poisoned by heavy-handed leadership that some will not run for reelection.

"This is not a process I enjoy anymore," Belmont Rep. James Pilliod told Monitor reporter Annmarie Timmins. "It used to be that we'd disagree and disagree like mad, but now you know that someone is going to come in and try to kill whatever you are trying to accomplish," he said. "It's not that we should win all the time or that anyone should win all the time. But when you start dealing with rudeness and anger in the leadership, it's not good anymore. I think we deserve better."

Pilliod is right, of course. New Hampshire does deserve better.

No, Vaillancourt should not have evoked Adolf Hitler in making his case on the House floor. No, O'Brien should not have squelched the comments of a Democratic lawmaker attempting to make his case on pending legislation.

What's amazing is that any of this needs to be debated at all.

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