Censure and Reprimand in the United States CongressSeptember 10, 2009 - by Paul Blumenthal
At some point in the developmental process human beings recognize that their emotional responses do not need to be immediately verbalized. Sometimes this development allows for some exceptions, berating your congressman at a town hall meeting or yelling at the movie screen to warn a character not to go in there. One place not to lose your cool is the floor of Congress. Especially if you decide to yell “You lie!” to the President of the United States during a speech to a joint session of Congress.
This seems like a little much after a month of similar insults coming from constituents, but the halls of Congress are a bit different than the halls of towns. Congress has rules of decorum that prohibit direct verbal attacks on another member of Congress, the President and the Vice President from the floor of either chamber (House or Senate).
A CRS Report on decorum rules in Congress states, "References to the President that have been ruled unparliamentary include calling the President a “liar,” attributing “hypocrisy” to him, accusing him of “demagoguery” and alluding to alleged personal misconduct or a “propensity of unethical behavior” on the President’s part."
Usually in a case where unparliamentary language is used by a lawmaker during debate the lawmaker is required to return to the floor and ask for their remarks be stricken from the record. This is what happened with Rep. Jean Schmidt after she remarked about Rep. John Murtha, a Marine and the first Vietnam vet to serve in Congress, “Cowards cut and run, marines never do.” Schmidt, facing threats of reprimand and censure, returned to the floor to retract her statements and apologize.
The various means, outside of an apology, that could be used to condemn Wilson’s remarks include censure, reprimand or the passage of a resolution condemning his statement. Congressmen have been censured in the past for use of unparliamentary language, although not in a long time. One of the most recent cases, and similar, occurred in 1890 when Rep. William Bynum was censured for referring to one of his fellow congressmen as a liar.
Another procedure that has been used more recently, although not against a congressman, would be a condemnatory resolution. In 2007, Congress voted to condemn an advertisement by the group MoveOn.org which referred to Gen. David Petraeus as “Gen. Betray Us”.
None of these punishments are likely after Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Democrats to cease calls for a formal rebuke to Wilson’s rebel yell. It looks as though the Democratic leadership may seek a formal apology from Wilson.
If you want a full recounting of previous censures, you can view this Open Congress wiki page for more details.