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What can House do to Joe Wilson for 'you lie' outburst?

Democrats want to punish Wilson for a breach of congressional decorum. Their options range from verbal censure to expulsion.

By Staff writer / September 14, 2009



Washington

Who benefits the most from the continuing uproar about Rep. Joe Wilson's heckling of President Obama?

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Mr. Wilson, of course, is the South Carolina Republican congressman who yelled "You lie!" at Mr. Obama during the president's healthcare speech to Congress Wednesday.

Since then, both liberals and conservatives have turned the incident into a cause célèbre, with the former calling for more apologies, and the latter saying no more are needed. Both Wilson and his likely Democratic opponent next fall, Rob Miller, have capitalized on their moment in the media sun by raising lots of money – over $1 million apiece.

So, the quick answer to the "who benefits" question might be "everybody, to some extent."

The Wilson flap may have become a sort of mini-wedge issue, something that motivates partisans on both sides by its ability to connect with their emotions.

"Everybody's political base benefits," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.

How often does the House censure its members?

Immediately after the speech, Wilson called the White House to apologize for his actions. The president accepted his apology, he notes, and thus it is time to move on.

"I am not apologizing again," said Wilson in a broadcast interview on Fox News Sunday. (See video here.)

But that's not good enough for House Democrats, who appear unwilling to let the dispute fade away. Citing House rules that prohibit members from impugning the integrity of the president while speaking in committee or on the floor, Democratic leaders say it is likely they will introduce a resolution of disapproval against Wilson either Monday or Tuesday.

The House has the right to discpline members who breach chamber decorum or damage institutional integrity, notes a Congressional Research Service report on House legislative discipline.
Punishments can range from censure via a resolution to expulsion.

"The House of Representatives has taken a broad view of its authority to discipline its Members," notes the CRS study.

From the founding of the nation through 2005, the House censured 22 members, according to CRS data. Censured conduct incldues the use of insulting or other unparliamentary language on the floor, fighting, supporting the Confederacy, selling appointments to the military academies, and sexual misconduct.

Independents peeved

The more difficult question might be how might the incident affect voters who aren't committed partisans.

Professor Baker believes swing voters may have judged Wilson's behavior to be out of bounds. Polls show independents are leery about aspects of Obama's healthcare reform plans, but they do not appreciate the more raucous aspects of modern US political culture.

In that case, the incident may lead to a slight net gain for Democratic health reform hopes, according to Baker.

"The House can be a pretty raucous place – but this was disrespecting the US head of state," he says.

Meanwhile, the White House appears to be eager to distance itself from the Wilson controversy. (If nothing else, it would be unpresidential to get involved in a spat with one back-bencher of the other party.)

"Look, I'm going to let the House figure out how to deal with that," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs in a Sunday broadcast interview.

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Joe Wilson apologizes once, Barack Obama accepts twice

In an interview broadcast yesterday, President Barack Obama called for an end to the “circus” atmosphere surrounding the healthcare debate, and said that he expected “a good healthcare bill” to pass through congress. Obama also indicated – for the second time – that he was ready to look past Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during a policy speech last week.

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