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'So help me God' no more: Democrats give House traditions a makeover

The New York Times

The witness rose from her seat, raised her right hand and swore to tell the truth before Congress.

But four words were missing: “So help me God.”

In the House of Representatives, to the winner go the spoils, and Democrats, the new decision makers, control everything, including what legislation gets a vote and the minutiae of procedural choices, such as whether witnesses must utter the traditional plea for divine aid. Democratic chairmen and chairwomen of several key committees have deemed no such entreaty is necessary.

“I think God belongs in religious institutions: in temple, in church, in cathedral, in mosque — but not in Congress,” said Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. What Republicans are doing, he continued, “is using God.”

“And God doesn’t want to be used,” he said.

No surprise, Republican lawmakers are staging a form of protest, jumping in when they can to point out each omission in real time.

“I am a sinner, I make mistakes every single day, but I do think that we could use a little more of God, not less,” Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana earnestly told his colleagues seated around the dais of the House Natural Resources Committee.

But weak is the hand without the gavel, and the change of phrasing is only one decision of many that the majority gets to make on Capitol Hill, where tradition reigns until it does not and every choice is freighted with subtext.

In 2003, Republicans famously rebranded the French fries and French toast offered in House cafeterias “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” to express dissatisfaction with Gallic opposition to the proposed invasion of Iraq. When Democrats wrested control of the chamber three years later, they introduced compostable silverware and cups — a decision Republicans swiftly reversedwhen they came to power in 2011, arguing that the utensils were too flimsy to properly spear salad fixings.

The Democrats in power now have yet to touch the culinary nomenclature of the House cafeterias. (There appears to be no Russian dressing available for them to snub.)

But they have introduced a number of other changes, each carrying its own symbolism: Free feminine hygiene products are now made available to offices. Several committee leaders have excised the gendered titles of “chairman” or “chairwoman” for the neutral mononym “chair” — though The New York Times’s style remains gender-specific.

And in a bid to become more eco-friendly, the Committee on Natural Resources swapped out single-use plastic water bottles for glassware at hearings. (One defiant Republican on the panel continues to bring in his own plastic bottle because he considers using glassware to be unsanitary.)

The single change that has prompted the most ire, however, is what Republicans contend is a concerted effort to omit the phrase “so help me God” when administering witness oaths. They point to examples on the Judiciary, Energy and Commerce, and Natural Resources committees; each person presiding over the panels has the power to decide to administer an oath as well as what that oath says.

[Video: Watch on YouTube.]

But like most Washington spats, the truth is more complicated. When Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, who heads the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, conducted a hearing and swore the witnesses in without the phrase, for example, Representative Jeff Duncan, Republican of South Carolina, jumped in to point out that “the oath was incorrect and incomplete.”

“This is the oath we use,” Ms. DeGette replied, “and that’s the oath we’re going to use today.”

No matter how small the teacup, such congressional tempests do get refracted through a partisan prism. The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit group dedicated to fostering “a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values,” cheered Ms. DeGette’s “support for the constitutional separation of church and state.” Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican, scoffed to Fox News that House Democrats “really have become the party of Karl Marx.”

But in truth, Ms. DeGette’s comment — “this is the oath we use” — carried no underlying meaning. She was not making a defiant secular stand, but merely reading from the same committee decorum rule book that her Republican predecessor, Representative Gregg Harper of Mississippi, had used to administer oaths, videos show.

In this case, Ms. DeGette’s omission was unintentional.

But some Democrats have mounted ideological defenses of truncating the oath to avoid references to religion. When Representative Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana, interrupted Mr. Cohen to ask that witnesses be sworn in again — or at least be asked if they would prefer to recite the traditional oath, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, who leads the Judiciary Committee, interjected.

“We do not have religious tests,” he said, and moved the hearing along.

Such arguments have troubled Republicans like Mr. Johnson, who has been on the front lines of efforts to make the oath invoke God again. He pulled Mr. Nadler aside on the House floor to discuss the issue and directed his office to produce short video montages illustrating it. He believes in the cause.

“The intention behind it was to express the idea that the truth of what was being said was important not just in the moment, but would go into eternity, and someone was watching and would ultimately be our judge,” Mr. Johnson said. “Some would call that mere symbolism, but to many of our founders, it was deeper than that.”

Mr. Johnson said he would continue his crusade, and he has already seen some results.

“To his credit,” he said of Mr. Nadler, “We had a hearing where he used ‘so help me God.’ I leaned over and winked at him."