Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Five Disciplinary Actions by the House of Representatives

Democrat or Republican, the behavior of certain members of Congress during last week's Presidental address was appalling. I'm not talking just about the outburst by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), either; on both sides of the aisle, quite a few Representatives and Senators barely pretended to pay attention to the President's remarks while feeding a constant stream of their own thoughts (so much more interesting and important) to the Internet.

It's a shocking lack of decorum and respect, but it's hardly unprecedented. The U.S. House of Representatives has a long history of rowdy behavior by its members, both on and off the legislative floor, and it has a disciplinary system in place to address it. The U.S. Constitution expressly grants the House the power to discipline its members for "disorderly Behaviour," and it does so with progressively harsher measures depending on the violation: letter of reproval, reprimand, censure, and expulsion, any of which may include fines, loss of seniority, and the loss of certain privileges.

The House of Representatives voted yesterday -- along partisan lines -- to reprimand Rep. Wilson for his outburst. In doing so, they were following rules set down originally by Thomas Jefferson, in his 1801 Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States, and incorporated in official Congressional rules that date back to 1909:
Personal abuse, innuendo, or ridicule of the president, is not permitted. Under this standard it is not in order to call the president, or a presumptive major-party nominee for president, a "liar" or accuse him of "lying." Indeed, any suggestion of mendacity is out of order.

The reprimand could and should have been a routine episode of parliamentary procedure, with Rep. Wilson making a quiet apology from the well of the House. Instead it's been turned into a circus that serves no one.

But as I say, it's not without precedent, and on the scale of things the House has censured or reprimanded its members for, it's not so terrible. Here are five other episodes of House discipline over the years:

1. Censure against Rep. Laurence M. Keitt (D-SC), July 15, 1856. Rep. Keitt accompanied his friend, Rep. Preston S. Brooks (D-SC), to the floor of the Senate on May 22, 1856, and held Senators at bay with a pistol while Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) nearly to death with a cane. (Sumner, a noted abolitionist, had cruelly mocked Brooks' cousin, Senator Andrew Butler, for not only his support of slavery but also a speech impediment caused by a stroke. See what happens when civility breaks down?) Anyway, Keitt resigned from Congress after his censure, but was reelected by a landslide later that year, and continued to serve until South Carolina seceded from the Union. A colonel in the Confederate States Army, he was killed at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864.

2. Censure against Rep. Lovell H. Rousseau (Unconditional Unionist-KY), July 24, 1866. Rep. Rousseau assaulted Rep. Josiah B. Grinnell (R-IA) in the East Front House Portico after Grinnell had challenged Rousseau's Civil War record on the House floor. Once again, a cane was involved; once again, Rousseau resigned in protest after his censure. And once again, his constituents returned him to Congress in a special election, although Rousseau left Congress at the end of the term.

3. Censure against Rep. Thomas L. Blanton (D-TX), October 27, 1921. Rep. Blanton was censured for inserting "obscene" and "indecent" material into the Congressional Record; a vote to expel him failed to win the necessary 2/3 vote, but the vote to censure was 293-0. The official reason for the censure was "unparliamentary language." I can't find anything that says what the obscene material was; anybody know? I'm dying of curiosity. Blanton left the House at the end of that term, ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Senate in 1928, and returned to the house for three more terms (1930-36) after the death of Rep. Robert Q. Lee.

4. Reprimand against Rep. Charles H. Wilson (D-CA), October 13, 1978; censure against Rep. Charles H. Wilson (D-CA), June 6, 1980. The 1978 reprimand was for "Koreagate," as Wilson was one of 31 legislators who allegedly received payoffs from Korean businessman Tongsun Park. One of Wilson's colleagues, Rep. Richard Hanna (D-CA), wound up serving two and a half years in prison for the crime. The reprimand was for making a false statement to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, but Wilson didn't learn; he was censured (and removed from his position as Chairman of the Postal Operations and Services Subcommittee) in 1980 for converting $25,000 in campaign funds to personal use and accepting a gift of $10,500 from someone with an interest in pending legislation. He lost his primary that year, and died in 1984. (This Charles Wilson is not to be confused with Texas Republican Rep. Charlie Wilson, the subject of the film Charlie Wilson's War; although Charlie Wilson was a figure of considerable notoriety, he was never the subject of an official House reprimand or censure.)

5. Reprimand against Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), July 26, 1990. Yes, I'm including this one, because if I don't bring it up, someone else will. Rep. Frank, currently the Chairman of the House Banking Committee, may be the smartest man in Congress, but made a foolish mistake in befriending (and patronizing) male prostitute Steve Gobie in the 1980s. Gobie claimed that he used Frank's house for paid assignations, with Frank's knowledge; the House reprimanded Frank for using his position to fix 33 of Gobie's parking tickets. The reprimand, by a vote of 408-18, succeeded after an effort to expel or censure him failed. That effort, interestingly enough, was led by then-Rep. Larry Craig (R-ID), who left the Senate at the end of his last term after a 2007 arrest for lewd conduct in a men's room at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.


Anonymous said...

Too bad you limited yourself to the House, or you could have added my personal favorite censure:

Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954.

Amy said...

Even if one does not agree with the President, the outburst was so disrespectful, so the rebuke was a good decision.

Mike said...

The closest I came to getting anything on Blanton was that it may have been blasphemy. But the source website wasn't something I'd heard of and it didn't give its sources so I don't know.