The Debate and The Liar

How many times have you watched a debate and folks running for office are lying and you know because you live in the state in which they are running, or you simply know the facts?

Well did you know this about lying during a debate?

Generally speaking, anything that a member of Congress says during a speech or debate in Congress is protected by the U.S. Constitution from lawsuits and criminal prosecution.

This immunity is covered in Article I, Section 6, and is known as the “Speech and Debate Clause”.

The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.

So a member of Congress can’t go to jail for lying during a debate in Congress. However, the Constitution does say: “…shall not be questioned in any other Place.” I read this to mean that a member of Congress can be punished (e.g. with expulsion) by his/her peers. The U.S. Supreme Court dove into this matter in Powell v. McCormack (1969).

There is substantial case law elaborating on the Speech and Debate Clause. For example, in addition to the case noted above, Gravel v United States (1972) was another landmark case. It established that the clause’s protections can, under certain circumstances, apply to Congressional staffers. More cases are listed below.

A useful and detailed commentary of the clause can be found in this document provided by Congress.gov (pdf; the relevant section starts at page 137).

Here are some excerpts:

    The immunities of the Speech or Debate Clause were not written into the Constitution simply for the personal or private benefit of Members of Congress, but to protect the integrity of the legislative process by insuring the independence of individual legislators.

    The protection of this clause is not limited to words spoken in debate. Committee reports, resolutions, and the act of voting are equally covered, as are things generally done in a session of the House by one of its members in relation to the business before it.

    So long as legislators are acting in the sphere of legitimate legislative activity, they are protected not only from the consequence of litigation's results but also from the burden of defending themselves.

    The scope of the meaning of "legislative activity" has its limits. The heart of the clause is speech or debate in either House, and insofar as the clause is construed to reach other matters, they must be an integral part of the deliberative and communicative processes by which Members participate in committee and House proceedings with respect to the consideration and passage or rejection of proposed legislation or with respect to other matters which the Constitution places within the jurisdiction of either House.

    Immunity from civil suit, both in law and equity, and from criminal action based on the performance of legislative duties flows from a determination that a challenged act is within the definition of legislative activity, but the Court in the more recent cases appears to have narrowed the concept somewhat.

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