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Censure and Reprimand in the United States Congress

September 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.

But that’s what Rep. Joe Wilson did. The South Carolina congressman has since apologized. Democrats have called for an apology — which they got — and possibly more.

Rep. James Clyburn, a fellow South Carolinian, is asking Wilson to come to the floor of the House to apologize. Taking a harder line is Sen. Arlen Specter, who is calling on Wilson to be censured.

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 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.

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  • Anonymous 09/10/2009 12:54pm

    Why wasn’t Senator Kennedy censured for calling President Bush a liar on the Senate floor multiple times.

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    Anonymous 09/12/2009 8:45am
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    + -1

    OBAMA should Be CENSURED 1) NOT A NATURAL BORN CITIZEN OF THE U.S.A 2) lies about everything in that piece of SH— health care bill (he has not read ether )3) ONE WORD COMMUNIST

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    Anonymous 09/15/2009 12:40pm

    JOE WILSON FOR PRESIDENT!! He speaks what the American people feel!

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    Anonymous 09/15/2009 12:56pm

    Sen Kennedy didn’t get censured because he’s a KENNEDY! Ever hear of the Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules!!!!

  • Anonymous 09/10/2009 2:08pm

    Maybe because Bush was a liar – have you forgotten “We do not torture”?

  • Anonymous 09/10/2009 2:28pm

    Come on folks! Just try to imagine what the Continental Congress debate must have been like. Do you really think everyone sat quietly?

    Politics is a contact sport and his comment was FAR from some of the near cage match exchanges that take place every day all over the world.

    I never thought I’d agree with Madam Speaker on ANYTHING, but I do here. Nice job Nan on calling for calm!

  • Anonymous 09/10/2009 4:27pm

    Sorry, but half the truth is just as misleading as a lie, even if it’s the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!!

  • need_to_comment 09/11/2009 5:21am

    I don’t think he should have yelled, however, it isn’t that big of a stretch from the Democrats booing and grumbling at almost every statement during a Bush speech. Besides, some of things that Democrats have said about Bush over the years have been much worse than “you lie”.

  • Anonymous 09/11/2009 9:06am

    why now are we always hearing of some a=hole claiming any adverse action or remark about NObama is racial .he lied no doubt but no one said anything racial. Perhaps the racists are al on his camp , thats where all the racist comments have come from. AND HE DID & DOES LIE

  • Anonymous 09/13/2009 4:20pm

    Rep. Joe Wilson’s behavior is unacceptable, offensive and an embarrassment. The excuse that it has been done before is irrelevant. The statement made by President Obama is irrelevant to the issue as well. Like a child, Rep. Wilson must be reprimanded and a failure to do that condones his behavior. And like a child, the behavior will be repeated if he is not held to account for it.

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    Anonymous 09/15/2009 5:10am

    Oh, give me a break!! Doesn’t anyone remember when President Bush was in office?? In his 2005 speech, the ENTIRE demoncrat side booed!!! Like a bunch of moronic parents at a child’s baseball game! Harriot Reid called President Bush a liar AND a loser, INFRONT OF HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS!! Noone seemed to be up in arms abouth that!!! Joe Wilson apologized to obama, and that should be it, over! But, demoncrats are a bunch of pussies. Always have been, always will be. Obama IS A LIAR!!! That’s his forte! That’s what he does best! And, thank God, Mr. Wilson called him on it!

  • Anonymous 09/14/2009 4:27am

    Joe Wilson can take his punishment while the rest of the world looks on. Every strong group needs a martyr. The rallying cry is “YOU LIE”.

    On a side note, it is time to search for a new search engine as Google is betraying us.

  • tesafrykland 09/15/2009 2:33pm

    I applaud the actions of the House of Representatives to restate the appropriate behavior in the Congress particularly in so public a setting. The necessity to present and pass this resolution is the outcome of Mr. Wilson’s own refusal to apologize not just to the President, but also to the Congress and the American people. His apology to the President was forced by his party leadership and the sincerity questionable. He immediately utilized his 15 minutes of fame from his unacceptable behavior to promote and prolong his 15 minutes of fame. Of course President Obama accepted his apology, that would be because he is a gentleman, but Mr. Wilson failed to display behavior expected of his position from the scream of “you lie” to his ongoing dialogue without apology to Congress and the American people.

  • Moderated Comment

  • Anonymous 09/16/2009 10:35am

    meh iz thrilled that da crib voted ta censure Wilson. Clearly da thang waz rasicim that drove him ta call him a liar. meh know, others haz b’in called names too which violate da rules but we iz turning a new leaf “yes we can.”

    Got ta goed, meh iz late fo’ mah Acorn appointment an’ need ta find mah girl so we can apply fo’ that brothel loan program.

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