Tuesday, September 15, 2009
The House has voted to admonish Rep. Joe Wilson over his "You lie!" outburst to President Obama during the president's health care speech to Congress last week.
The 240-179 vote on the resolution of disapproval reflected the sharp partisan divide over the issue. Democrats insisted that the South Carolina Republican take responsibility for what they said was a serious breach of decorum. Republicans characterized the vote as a political stunt.
Wilson himself would not back down on his position that he owed the House no apology. Surrounded by Republican supporters, Wilson said Obama had "graciously accepted my apology and the issue is over."
The Office of the House Historian said the resolution marks the first time in the 220-year history of the House that a member had been admonished for speaking out while the president was giving an address. A resolution of disapproval is less severe than other disciplinary action available to the House, including censure or expulsion.
The resolution said Wilson's conduct was a "breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House."
Wilson's outburst came as Obama, during a joint session speech on health care legislation, said that illegal immigrants would not be eligible for federal subsidies to purchase health insurance.
The "You lie!" shout drew gasps from other members, and Wilson, at the urging of Republican leaders, called White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to apologize. But he has resisted later suggestions that he go to the House floor to express further remorse.
"I think that Mr. Wilson could have resolved this himself" by speaking directly to his House colleagues, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio dismissed the resolution as a "witch hunt" and a distraction from the health care debate. "My goodness, we could be doing this every day of the week," he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said it was time to move on to health care and other substantive issues. Republicans agreed. But other Democratic leaders, including third-ranked James Clyburn of South Carolina, pushed for a House vote.
Clyburn, in an interview last week, said Wilson's behavior was "indicative of the combativeness he displays all the time when it comes to politics."
A leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Clyburn perceived it as a snub that Wilson held a town hall meeting on health care this summer at a school in Clyburn's district — where Clyburn's children attended — without telling Clyburn.
There also have been suggestions that recent harsh criticism of Obama has been at least partly motivated by race. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), current head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that "today is about the civility and decorum of the House." But she added that we "can't sweep race under the rug — racism is still a factor and must be addressed."
A House Rules Committee summary of guidelines for members states that while it is permissible to challenge the president on matters of policy during debate, personal attacks are off-limits. House rules note that a member could refer to a presidential message as a "disgrace to the nation" but it would be impermissible to call the president a "liar," a "hypocrite" or say he was "giving aid and comfort to the enemy."
Treatment of Wilson's shout was complicated by the fact that it occurred not during floor debate but during a televised presidential address to Congress.
In 2007 Republicans unsuccessfully introduced a censure resolution against Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) for saying during debate that U.S. troops were being sent to Iraq "to get their heads blown off for the president's amusement." Stark later apologized to his colleagues.