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War of words escalates in House

Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.)
Greg Nash

In my previous column in this space (“Ethics Wars Redux?,” Nov. 15), I looked at charges pending against Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) for posting on his official account an animated cartoon of him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Biden with two swords.  Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) referred the matter to the House Ethics Committee and law enforcement, and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution of censure that was also referred to Ethics.

I couched the column in the context of the House ethics wars in the 1970s and 1980s that culminated in the resignation of Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) and the subsequent elevation of his chief pursuer, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), to the speakership. Gingrich himself would later resign under his own ethics cloud after just two terms as speaker. 

I questioned whether a new spate of ethics charges being hurled about in this Congress is a precursor to another nasty round of ethics spats that will distract the House from its more important work. 

In the last Congress, the GOP overwhelmingly supported House censure of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and removed him from his committee assignments for making white supremacist remarks. Earlier in this Congress, without prior GOP conference backing, the House voted to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) from her standing committees for seeming to endorse political violence in the wake of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Since my Nov. 15 column, the Gosar case took a turn by being referred to the Rules Committee for a special rule, without any action by the Ethics Committee. The Rules Committee granted a special rule for the Speier resolution but automatically amended it by also removing Gosar from his two committees — again without prior Republican Conference consideration or clearance. The rule sealed the deal by precluding any possibility that the resolution could be tabled or referred to the Ethics Committee. The House subsequently adopted the resolution on a near-party line vote, and Gosar stood in the well of the House while the resolution was read back to him.

Over the Thanksgiving recess, a video was posted by Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) in which she accused Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, of being sympathetic to terrorists, tarring her with being part of the “Jihad Squad.” House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), on behalf of the Democratic leadership, issued a press release on Nov. 26, labeling Boebert’s comments, “Islamaphobic and racist,” and called on the Republican leadership to address the issue. Although Boebert subsequently apologized for her comments, Omar insisted on a personal, public apology, which Boebert refused to proffer.

All this leaves the Democrats, once again, with the quandary of whether to censure, and possibly remove Boebert from her committee assignments, notwithstanding the apology.  Their hesitancy has been tempered in part by Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (Calif.) vow to treat the Democrats similarly when the GOP retakes control of the House. The not-so-subtle implication is that Republicans might simply proceed to remove objectionable Democrats from their committee posts, even without the pretense of ethics offenses.

It is important to understand that for over two centuries now, the assignment of members to committees has initially been the prerogative of their party caucus or conference. Until these recent incidents, those nominations have been routinely approved by the entire House as a matter of inter-party comity. 

There is no question that the House retains the right under the Constitution to punish its members for disorderly conduct, and that punishment can include stripping members of committee assignments. But, to tuck that penalty into a censure resolution without opportunity to divide the question, and without even a modicum of due process, can become a very divisive instrument having lasting consequences.

It became clear during the Rules Committee hearing on the Gosar case that the House Ethics Committee chair, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) was not anxious to wade into such a swamp every time there was an errant, online hiccup. His committee noted in its report on a 2020 case that it was not “the social media police,” and that not all mistakes committed there warrant an ethics investigation. But it did urge members to exercise sound judgment before posting their views.

Is there any end to this spiraling ethics war of words? My advice to members: Those shiny objects you are wielding are actually jagged pieces of glass, capable of cutting to the bone not only the members you are targeting but piercing to the heart the institution you should be healing. Stop pontificating from the left and right and start legislating for the vital center of America. Our democracy is fragile and especially vulnerable during these perilous times.

(I am especially indebted to the excellent reporting of The Hill’s Christina Marcos for the details of this developing story.)

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Censure Ethics Committee Ilhan Omar Jackie Speier Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Lauren Boebert Marjorie Taylor Greene Nancy Pelosi Newt Gingrich Paul Gosar Steny Hoyer Steve King Ted Deutch

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