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How the House rebuke of Steve King would work

Whether reprimand or censure, a formal ding from the chamber comes with few consequences

Democrats Bobby Rush and Tim Ryan have introduced separate measures to censure Iowa Republican Steve King over a pattern of racist comments. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Democrats Bobby Rush and Tim Ryan have introduced separate measures to censure Iowa Republican Steve King over a pattern of racist comments. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democratic leaders are planning to hold a vote Tuesday on a resolution of disapproval against Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King for racist comments, while two rank-and-file members are pushing for a stronger rebuke.

Democratic Reps. Bobby L. Rush of Illinois and Tim Ryan of Ohio introduced separate measures on Monday to censure King, setting into motion votes on one of Congress’ formal means of punishing members.

And Republicans are taking action of their own, deciding not to seat King on any committees for the 116th Congress.

Censure, which amounts to a vote and a public shaming, is the chamber’s most stringent form of punishment, short of expulsion.

Rush, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Monday that Congress “cannot be a platform for Steve King and those of his ilk” and compared him to a rabid animal.

King has faced widespread backlash in recent days for questioning, in a New York Times interview, why the terms “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” had become “offensive.”

“He has become too comfortable with proudly insulting, disrespecting, and denigrating people of color. As with any animal that is rabid, Steve King should be set aside and isolated,” Rush said in a statement.

Ryan announced his intention to censure King last week, after the Times article came out.

“The dangerous ideology of white supremacy has no place in America — let alone Congress. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, we all have a responsibility to call out Rep. King’s hateful and racist comments,” Ryan said in a statement Monday.

Both Rush and Ryan offered their resolutions on the floor Monday evening.

Forms of disapproval

Meanwhile, Majority Whip James E. Clyburn introduced his own resolution of disapproval on King. The House is scheduled to vote on it Tuesday under suspension of the rules, a fast-track process that requires two-thirds support. Democratic leaders are lining up behind the effort.

Clyburn said Monday afternoon that he does not want to go so far as censure. “I don’t think we in the House should be censuring somebody for what he said to a reporter,” the South Carolina Democrat said.

His measure would be similar to action taken by the House in 2009 to disapprove of GOP Rep. Joe Wilson for shouting “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.

The House can adopt a resolution of disapproval by a formal vote, stating that the House “disapproves” of the behavior of a member.

The disapproval resolution of Wilson, sponsored by Clyburn, stated that his shouting was “a breach of decorum” that “degraded the proceedings of the joint session.”

Rush said a disapproval resolution “is not strong enough” and “skirts the issue,” whereas his resolution is “right to the point.”

“I may not have everybody with me, but this is one member of Congress [who] will stand up to Steve King and his entire ilk and ideology,” he said.

How censure works

Options for punishing members of Congress are loosely outlined in Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution, which states that “each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.”

A censure is a formal, majority vote in the House on a resolution disapproving of a member’s conduct, generally with the additional requirement that the member stand in the well of the chamber and receive a verbal rebuke and reading of the resolution by the speaker.

Censures are considered “privileged resolutions” and must be noticed on the floor before being introduced, which means that Rush, Ryan and Clyburn each have to announce on the floor that they intend to offer their measures. Next, the text of the resolution is read.

Now that Rush and Ryan have done just that, the speaker has up to two legislative days to set a day and time for consideration of their measures.
At the appointed time, the sponsor would call up the censure resolution for immediate consideration. No matter what else is pending on the floor, the censure resolution would take precedence. The House could proceed to immediate debate on the measure, or it could be tabled. If it is tabled, the House would have to vote on an appeal by the sponsor.

With Democratic leaders backing Clyburn’s disapproval resolution, it seems likely they’d move to table Rush and Ryan’s censure resolutions.

But if the resolutions are not tabled, the process provides for a full hour of debate, with 30 minutes controlled by the sponsor of the censure and the rest controlled by an opponent. Following debate, the resolution would be voted on by the House.

Throughout history, 23 House members have been censured for a range of misconduct, from using insulting language on the floor to assaulting other lawmakers. In more recent history, censures have stemmed from behavior such as payroll fraud, sexual misconduct and financial improprieties.

Technically, there are no express consequences in the House rules after a member has been censured.

The most recent lawmaker to face censure was New York Democrat Charles B. Rangel in 2010. The House Ethics Committee recommended the action after Rangel was found to have misused federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center named in his honor, used a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office, failed to pay taxes on a rental property in the Dominican Republic and filed inaccurate financial disclosure forms.

More than 100 Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted to reduce Rangel’s punishment from censure to reprimand, but that motion was defeated. In the final vote on Dec. 2, 2010, the House approved the penalty, 333-79. Earlier that year, Rangel had taken a leave of absence as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. After censure, he officially handed over the gavel.

Although he asked for mercy from the censure, Rangel did make remarks in the well that day that emphasized the public nature of the punishment. “I stand to say that I have made serious mistakes. I do believe rules are made to be enforced. I do believe we in the Congress have a higher responsibility than most people. I do believe that senior members should act in a way as a model for new and less experienced members,” he said.

Leadership action

Criticism of King has been building.

The Republican Steering Committee unanimously decided Monday evening not to seat King on any committees for the 116th Congress, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters.

King will still be allowed to attend Republican Conference meetings, the minority leader said.

“Leader McCarthy’s decision to remove me from committees is a political decision that ignores the truth,” the Iowa Republican said in a statement Monday evening, adding that his Times quote “had been completely mischaracterized.”

McCarthy suggested he would also be open to supporting a disapproval resolution. “I do not agree with [King’s] remarks, and I would support something saying I did not agree with his remarks,” he said. “We realize and we know and we‘re very proud of the fact that the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln.”

McCarthy last week denounced King’s language as “reckless” and “wrong,” saying in a statement: “Everything about white supremacy and white nationalism goes against who we are as a nation.”

Rush had called for McCarthy to remove King from his committee assignments “until he apologizes for his racism.” The rest of the Congressional Black Caucus made a similar call over the weekend.

“Anything less than these substantive actions is another tacit acceptance of racism from the Republican Party,” CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that punitive action will be taken against King, but didn’t specify if it would be censure.

“We’ll see what we do about Steve King but nonetheless, nothing is shocking anymore, right? The new normal around here is to praise white supremacists and nationalism as something that shouldn’t be shunned,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.

Perhaps in a sign of how toxic the Iowa Republican has become, GOP lawmakers in the Senate are also speaking out against King, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate.

“There is no place in the Republican Party, the Congress or the country for an ideology of racial supremacy of any kind. I have no tolerance for such positions and those who espouse these views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms,“ McConnell said. “Rep. King’s statements are unwelcome and unworthy of his elected position. If he doesn’t understand why ‘white supremacy’ is offensive, he should find another line of work.”

South Carolina’s Scott wrote an op-ed Friday in The Washington Post, joining a chorus of Republicans in Congress condemning King’s remarks.
“When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole,” Scott wrote.

Patterns emerge

King has been making inflammatory comments about race and immigration for years. In 2013 he spoke out against giving Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents, a path to legal status.

“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King said.

While members of GOP leadership at that time criticized King’s words and characterization of immigrants, no action was taken against him. Actually, he doubled down later that week during a radio appearance.

“This is real. We have people that are … drug mules, that are hauling drugs across the border and you can tell by their physical characteristics what they’ve been doing for months,” King said.

Updated 9:45 p.m. Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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