Proving that politics can be swift, members of the House of Representatives went on record last night and formally reprimanded one of their own for his breach of protocol in the House chambers. By a 240 to 179 vote, essentially along party lines, the House passed a “resolution of disapproval” of South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson. The action is in response to Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s speech on health care before a joint session of Congress last week. Wilson blurted out “You Lie!” when the President was discrediting critics who have been claiming that his health care proposal would require aid for illegal immigrants. The sound of the South Carolinian shouting was such that it caused the President to pause in mid-sentence and provoked an angry glaze from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who appeared to be searching the audience for the source of the insult from her seat on the rostrum.
The vote to reprimand Wilson comes after a week of political jostling that saw his election opponent experience a surge of financial contributions and Wilson himself become a poster boy for the GOP’s right wing. Following Wilson’s outburst, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel demanded Republicans determine who hurled the insult and made clear he expected an apology to the President in short order. Wilson came forward and apologized to President Obama, but many Democrats and voters immediately demanded stiffer punishment. Despite a growing chorus of condemnation, Wilson remained steadfast in his defiance, showing up on conservative television talk shows, and becoming a poster boy for the far right. Since last Friday, Wilson has been winning praise from conservatives and is now viewed as a symbol of Republican dissent.
After President Obama accepted Wilson’s apology it appeared as though the controversy might subside but Blacks in the House Democratic caucus, and in general, expressed anger over what is perceived to be a racial slight by the southern Congressman. Leading the charge against Wilson was one of his brethren from South Carolina, Rep. James Clyburn, the Majority Leader in the House. Clyburn made the case that Wilson’s outburst was disrespectful of the President and a severe breach of established protocol and worse, racially driven. Clyburn’s sentiments were echoed by other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who pointed out the level of hostility directed toward the President over the course of the health care debate as an indication of a growing climate of hate. Not satisfied that Wilson had offered an apology to the President, Clyburn and others, felt that Wilson owed the House of Representatives an apology for his behavior but Wilson refused, saying he had apologized to the President.
The vote to reprimand Wilson had some crossover between parties, with Republicans Anh "Joseph" Cao (La.), Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Bob Inglis (S.C.), Walter B. Jones (N.C.), Tom Petri (Wis.), and Dana Rohrabacher (Calif) voting in favor, and Democrats Michael Arcuri (N.Y.), Bill Delahunt (Mass.), Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), Paul W. Hodes (N.H.), Maurice D. Hinchey (N.Y.), Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), Dan Maffei (N.Y.), Eric Massa (N.Y.), Jim McDermott (Wash.), Gwen Moore (Wis.), Gene Taylor (Miss.), and Harry Teague (N.M.) voting in opposition to the resolution. Democrats Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), Bill Foster (Ill.), Barney Frank (Mass.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.),and Ike Skelton (Mo.) voted present.
The House resolution has little practical effect and is not punitive in the way a formal censure, so Wilson will conduct business as usual. Symbolically, the resolution serves a purpose for Democrats and Republicans alike. As the majority, Democrats used every opportunity to raise Wilson’s outburst as an example of how unreasonable Republicans have become in their interactions with President Obama. Republicans and their conservative supporters see the Democrats’ actions as a significant fundraising tool. The GOP also senses that the incident can serve as a rallying cry for its rank and file on the far right of the political spectrum. Both parties have managed to parlay some benefit from Wilson’s loose tongue as the debate over health care reform enters its final stretch.