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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman December 17, 2012

Allen West said the House voted to remove the word 'lunatic' from federal law

The first week of December in Congress was dominated by news about the fiscal cliff. So you will forgive us if we overlooked this other tidbit tucked into the final weekly newsletter sent by U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Palm Beach Gardens.

"This week we voted in the House of Representatives to remove the word ‘lunatic’ from federal law," wrote West, who lost a close race to Democrat Patrick Murphy in District 18 in Florida’s Treasure Coast. "However, that does not mean there isn't plenty of lunacy going on in the workings of the federal government!"

We can’t fact-check the amount of lunacy in Washington, D.C., but we couldn’t resist looking into whether the House actually voted to remove the word "lunatic" from federal law.

On Dec. 5, the House voted 398-1 in favor of Senate Bill 2367, the 21st Century Language Act of 2012. The bill, which the Senate approved by unanimous consent in May, struck the word "lunatic" from federal law. As of Dec. 17, it was awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature.

The vote was part of an effort to remove outdated and demeaning language, and it was supported by advocates for people with mental health conditions. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., in response to a constituent’s request.

"The term ‘lunatic’ derives from the Latin word for ‘moon,’ " said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, before the House vote, according to the congressional record. "Before the modern era, it was used to describe a person who suffers from mental disease because of the belief that lunar cycles had an impact on brain function. But as science and medicine have progressed, society has come to understand mental illness with more clarity."

Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., said "this bill eliminates outdated references in the U.S. Code that stigmatize individuals with mental illness issues. ... The term ‘lunatic’ holds a place in antiquity and should no longer have a prominent place in our U.S. Code."

Scott compared it to a law in 2010 that replaced parts of federal law containing the phrase "having mental retardation'' with the phrase "having intellectual disabilities.''

The bill deletes "lunatic" from Section 1 of Title 1 of the U.S. Code which states "the words ‘insane’ and ‘insane person’ and ‘lunatic’ shall include every idiot, lunatic, insane person, and person non compos mentis."

The Congressional Research Service summary says the bill "removes references to the word ‘lunatic’ from rules of construction of the U.S. Code and banking law provisions concerning: (1) trust powers of banks, and (2) bank consolidations and mergers."

University of Miami banking law professor Stanley Langbein told PolitiFact Florida that, "By lunatics, the law means what today we would refer to as persons ‘adjudicated incompetent’ – and the person’s affairs would probably not be administered by a committee, but by what we would call a ‘guardian.’ ...  Moreover, the term ‘lunatic,’ though once commonly used in the law (the late 19th and early 20th centuries) is no longer used; when it was used, I believe it referred to a mentally disabled individual, usually what we would call a ‘special needs’ person, or more harshly a ‘mentally retarded’ person, today."

The lone "no" vote was cast by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who issued a statement saying, "Not only should we not eliminate the word 'lunatic' from federal law when the most pressing issue of the day is saving our country from bankruptcy, we should use the word to describe the people who want to continue with business as usual in Washington."

For the record, West voted to strike the word "lunatic," but he only gave it a brief mention in his final weekly newsletter, which focused more on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, foreign affairs, and the economy. And West wrote that his final weekly update as a congressman from District 22 wasn’t really his last word. (He represented District 22 but ran in District 18 due to redistricting. For more on his parting thoughts, read his post-election interview with NPR.)

Our ruling

West said the House of Representatives "voted to remove the word ‘lunatic’ from federal law." Indeed, the House voted 398-1 to do just that.

We rate this claim True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

U.S. Rep. Allen West, Weekly wrapup, Dec. 8th, 2012

Washington Post 2Chambers blog, "Congress votes to strike ‘lunatic’ from federal laws,"Dec. 6th, 2012

UPI, "House votes to strike ‘lunatic’ from laws,"Dec. 6, 2012

Associated Press, "House approves eliminating ‘lunatic’ from federal law,"Dec. 5, 2012

U.S. Library of Congress, S. 2367, Passed by the House Dec. 5, 2012

Congressional record, S. 2367,  Dec. 5, 2012

U.S. Code, Accessed Dec. 14, 2012

PolitiFact, "Viral post claims precinct in Allen West race had 900 ballots cast but only 7 registered voters,"Nov. 20, 2012

NPR, "What Allen West and Abraham Lincoln have in common,"  Nov. 30,  2012

Interview, Bob Carolla, spokesman for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Dec. 11, 2012

Interview, Michele Hickford, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Allen West, Dec. 11, 2012

Interview, Barry Piatt, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, Dec. 11, 2012

Interview, Adam Levitin, Georgetown Law professor, Dec. 11, 2012

Interview, Stanley Langbein, University of Miami law professor, Dec. 11, 2012

Interview, Michelle Evans, U.S. Office of the Law Revision Counsel, Dec. 13, 2012

Interview, George D. Wilson, reference librarian at Stanford law, Dec. 13, 2012

Interview, Kimberly Willingham, spokeswoman for Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, Dec. 11, 2012

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Allen West said the House voted to remove the word 'lunatic' from federal law

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