A marathon debate today in the House of Representatives on the Stop Online Piracy Act wasn't derailed by procedural questions, even though not one hearing had been held on how the law would actually work.
It wasn't derailed by questions about SOPA's substance, even though legal scholars and technologists have said it could suppress free speech by virtually deleting Web sites accused of copyright infringement.
Instead, today's markup of SOPA in the House Judiciary committee was derailed by a snarky post on Twitter. (See CNET's FAQ on SOPA.)
The tweet in question came from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a pro-gun, anti-abortion conservative who wrote that: "We are debating the Stop Online Piracy Act and Shiela Jackson [sic] has so bored me that I'm killing time by surfing the Internet."
That would be Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who's a notoriously combative member of Congress and was named the "meanest" by the Washingtonian magazine. She didn't take kindly to being called boring.
Jackson Lee objected. And the hearing ground to a sudden halt.
It was her use of the O-word--"offensive"--that interrupted the steady flow of amendments that critics were offering to SOPA, which were being merrily defeated one after another by the pro-SOPA majority on the committee.
It's inappropriate "to have a member of the Judiciary committee be so offensive," Jackson Lee said.
Unfortunately for audience members who might have appreciated the relative merits of a colloquy between Jackson Lee and her Twitter-ing interlocutor, King wasn't actually in the room by the time she discovered the alarming tweet.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the committee's previous chairman and an old parliamentary hand, leaped to his Republican colleague's defense, suggesting that the clerk delete the word "offensive" from the official record. Jackson Lee refused.
Rep. Lamar Smith, a SOPA-loving Texas Republican who's the chairman of the committee, renewed that request. He had apparently concluded that unlike "boring," her use of the word "offensive" violated House rules. (See CNET's profile of Smith.)
He asked Jackson Lee to formally withdraw her remark. She refused.
Smith tried again, saying that he was trying to "avoid making an official ruling" to the effect that Jackson Lee "impugned the integrity of a member of this committee." Would she "consider having just that one word stricken from the record?"
Jackson Lee again refused. She wanted King to "give the committee an apology."
But he wasn't there. And the important question of integrity-impugning had to be resolved. The committee members waited for the stenographer to read Jackson Lee's precise remarks back from the official transcript.
House rules, as you might imagine, provide procedures for how to deal with "disorderly words" and "unparliamentary language."
One option: "In many instances, the Chair will observe that debate is becoming personal and approaching a violation of the rules, in which case he may simply request that Members proceed in order."
But when a politico is in another building, or perhaps even in another city, and commenting through Twitter, that venerable option to promote civility (dating back to 1837) doesn't exactly work.
Jackson Lee consulted with the committee's parliamentarian. Everyone else waited.
Finally, the resolution: Jackson Lee relented. She wanted to have "just that one word stricken from the record."
Instead of King's tweet being "offensive," Jackson Lee concluded, she would merely deem it "impolitic and unkind."
King, by the way, has remained impenitent, and perhaps even amused. His last tweet says: "Judging from the many responses of my critics, they've never heard of multitasking and need to, in the words of Cain, get a sense of humor."
The committee resumed debate and a series of votes, typically by a margin of around 12 to 22, siding with the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and their allies. By the end of the day, SOPA remained entirely intact.