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House censures Rep. Jamaal Bowman for pulling fire alarm

New York Democrat joins small but growing group of publicly shamed members

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, seen here on Nov. 9, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for pulling a fire alarm in a congressional office building in September. House Republicans have kept a spotlight on the incident.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, seen here on Nov. 9, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for pulling a fire alarm in a congressional office building in September. House Republicans have kept a spotlight on the incident. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Jamaal Bowman is the 27th member of the House in history to be censured, after his colleagues voted mostly along party lines, 214-191, in favor of the formal rebuke.

The disciplinary action was taken in response to the New York Democrat pulling a fire alarm on Sept. 30 on his way to vote on a stopgap spending bill. Republicans have alleged it was an intentional move to delay a vote and have compared him to the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to stop the certification of presidential election results.

Bowman has maintained the alarm pull was a mistake. He pleaded guilty in October to a misdemeanor charge and agreed to pay a $1,000 fine. The alarm did not disrupt action on the floor, and the House Ethics Committee declined to further investigate the incident. But Republicans pressed forward anyway.

Censure is a largely symbolic gesture that typically requires the rebuked lawmaker to stand in the well of the House as the resolution is read. After hearing the vote total on Thursday, Bowman got hugs and sympathetic pats on the back from fellow members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who gathered around him.

Three Democrats broke ranks to support the censure. Reps. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Chris Pappas of New Hampshire and Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez of Washington voted in favor of the resolution, joining nearly every Republican in attendance. All three face tough reelection races in seats targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Another four Democrats dodged the question and voted present: Chrissy Houlahan and Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, Glenn F. Ivey of Maryland and Deborah K. Ross of North Carolina. One Republican, Andy Harris of Maryland, also voted present.

Asked why she voted present, Wild pointed to her role as ranking member of the Ethics Committee. Ivey and Ross also serve on the panel.

Bowman joins a small but growing list that includes Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who was censured last month for comments she made about the war between Israel and Hamas, and California Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff, who was censured in June for allegedly spreading falsehoods about the Trump campaign’s attempt to collude with Russia in 2016.

Bowman was caught on Capitol Police security cameras attempting to exit a locked door in the Cannon House Office Building on Sept. 30. After trying twice to exit, he turned to his left, pulled the fire alarm and then quickly left the area, according to a Capitol Police affidavit. Bowman has said he thought pulling the alarm would open the door.

He was later seen walking across Independence Avenue toward the Capitol, where he cast a vote — along with most other Democrats — in favor of the stopgap spending bill that Republicans had just introduced.

“He did break the law. He did plead guilty. And we need to hold that member accountable,” New York Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis said Wednesday night during a tense floor debate, after a Democratic attempt to table the censure resolution failed.

The censure resolution on which the House voted Thursday was introduced by Michigan Republican Rep. Lisa McClain and followed several other attempts to punish Bowman. Malliotakis had earlier introduced her own resolution to expel Bowman. And George Santos, the former New York congressman who was removed from office by his colleagues last week after a damning Ethics Committee report, introduced a resolution to expel Bowman on his way out the door. 

“It’s not just accountability if Republicans do something. It’s accountability if anyone in this chamber does something, commits a crime, pleads guilty. And that is what we’re doing today,” Malliotakis continued.

Democrats, meanwhile, cast the censure as a distraction.

“Under Republican control, this chamber has become a place where trivial issues get debated passionately and important ones, not at all. Republicans have focused more on censuring people in this Congress than passing bills that help people we represent,” Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern said Wednesday, nearly shouting.

“I mean, honestly, what the hell is wrong with you?” he added.

After Thursday’s vote, Democrats continued to voice their frustration.

“If this was actually genuine, they wouldn’t be digging up events that are months old … to distract from the fact that they haven’t funded the government,” said New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“All they do is vacate the chair, expulsions, censures, reprimands, impeachment,” said Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin. “It’s a politics of spectacle that they got from Donald Trump, ‘The Apprentice’ TV star. I mean, every day we walk in there, it’s just another version of, ‘You’re fired.’”

For much of the 20th century, censure was exceedingly rare, but in recent years it has become more popular in an increasingly partisan House.

Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar was censured in 2021 for posting violent imagery against Ocasio-Cortez to social media. But before Gosar it had been more than 10 years since the previous censure.

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