How House has handled other Joe Wilson-like moments

House Democrats consider a resolution of disapproval for 'You lie!' outburst.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina, center, listens during President Barack Obama's speech on health care to a joint session of Congress Sept. 9 on Capitol Hill.

Unless he apologizes to Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina on Tuesday is likely to be reproached by the House for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama.

And if recent history is any guide, it is a punishment that will have few, if any, lasting consequences.

That is because rebukes, disapprovals, and other verbal scoldings are fairly low in the hierarchy of punishments that Congress has the power to mete out to its members.

“There is an arsenal of retaliatory weapons that both chambers have. Mostly, they are inconsequential politically,” says Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

A quick look at the list of members who have been admonished by a vote of the full House in recent years shows that some weren’t hurt much by the supposed ignominy. Others recovered from any political problems brought on by the underlying conduct that produced the disapproval.

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D) of Massachusetts, for instance, at one point became tired of the constant verbal attacks on the Democratic Party by a then-backbencher, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. In debate, he called the attacks “the lowest thing I’ve seen in my 32 years in Congress."

Since that was a personal comment about a member – a breach of House etiquette – Mr. O’Neill officially had his own words struck from the congressional record. It was the first time a speaker had suffered such a punishment since 1798.

It was not something that permanently affected O’Neill’s reputation.

Generally speaking, the hierarchy of punishments goes like this: explusion at the top, then censure, then reprimand.

The House has expelled only five members in its history, including former Rep. James Traficant (D) of Ohio, who was kicked out in 2002 for taking bribes, among other things.

Censure is the more serious form of verbal admonishment. If it is approved by a full House vote, the censured member must stand at the front of the chamber and listen to the censure document being read out loud.

A reprimand does not carry that same personal-apprearance requirement.

The last time a member of the House was officially censured for language goes all the way back to 1921. Thomas Blanton, a Democrat from Texas, inserted something in the Congressional Record that had indecent and obscene language. After the censure, he apologized.

In dealing with wayward members, Congress can also pass a resolution of disapproval. This is the punishment that House leaders apparently are preparing for Representative Wilson.

Then there is the striking of words from the record, as occurred to O’Neill.

And what can the House rebuke a member for? Pretty much anything it considers to be poor behavior.

“There is no precise listing or description in the Rules of the House of Representatives of the specific types of misconduct or ethical improprieties which might subject a Member to the various potential disciplines,” notes a 2005 Congressional Research Service report on the subject.


Who benefits the most from the uproar about Wilson’s heckling of Mr. Obama? Click here for a rundown.


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