Joe Wilson and Saying Sorry Discipline in Congress

Democrats in the US House of Representatives want an apology.

Republican Representative Joe Wilson interrupted President Obama's address to Congress last week by shouting "You lie!" Now House Democratic leaders are threatening to issue a public reprimand unless Wilson apologizes on the House floor for his outburst.

Wilson says he's done apologizing. He apologized to the White House, and the President accepted his apology. Some House Democrats though, aren't ready to forgive and forget. They say a public admonishment is needed because Wilson's conduct violated the House Rules.

Order in the House

The House Rules are designed to keep congressional debate focused on political issues rather than political personalities. That's why Representatives don't even refer to each other by name on the House floor. They say "the Gentleman from New York" or "the Gentlewoman from Maryland."

Under these rules, it's okay for House members to question the President's motives or actions. It's not okay for them to make personal attacks on the President. Section 370 specifically prohibits any personal abuse or ridicule of the President. It's been determined several times that a House member violates this rule by calling the President a liar or by accusing him of lying or dishonesty.

Congressional Discipline

The Constitution authorizes the House to punish its members for disorderly behavior. Common forms of Congressional discipline include the following:

  • Expulsion:A Member may be voted out of the House for very serious misconduct. Representatives have been expelled for disloyalty to the Union and crimes involving the misuse of congressional authority.
  • Censure: A censure is a formal vote by the House on a resolution disapproving a Member's conduct. Generally, the disciplined Representative must stand at the front of the House chamber to receive a verbal chastising and hear the reading of the censure resolution by the Speaker of the House.Censures were issued in the 1800's for the use of insulting language and assaults on other House Members. More recently censures were issued for bribery, payroll fraud, the receipt of improper gifts, and the misuse of campaign funds.
  • Reprimand:A reprimand is given for less severe misconduct and it involves less public shaming than a censure.A resolution is adopted by a vote of the House with the Member standing at his seat or by the adoption of a committee's report. House Members have been reprimanded for misconduct ranging from the failure to disclose conflicts of interest and campaign contributions to making false statements to investigating committees.
  • Fines:A House Member may be ordered to repay misused funds or to pay for the costs of the investigation into misconduct.
  • Loss of privileges:A privilege may be denied when a violation involves the abuse of that privilege. For example, a Member may lose membership in a committee or subcommittee.
  • Letter of reproval:The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is authorized to issue a "Letter of Reproval" to a Member when the Committee disapproves of conduct but makes no recommendation for action by the full House. Letters of Reproval have been issued for violations of the gift policy, the misuse of congressional resources, and the misuse of staff for campaign purposes. On occasion, the Committee has expressed disproval in even less formal letters and other communications such as a Letter of Admonition.

Scolding Representative Wilson

If House Democrats follow through on issuing a reprimand or reproval to Wilson, it won't amount to much more than a public scolding. It's just a way for the House to put its disapproval of Wilson's behavior on the Congressional Record.

Meanwhile Wilson is cashing in on the national attention given to the heckling. He's raised more than $700,000 in campaign funds since the incident.

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