‘You lie’ comment draws House vote of disapproval
Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON – A bitterly divided House of Representatives formally reproached Rep. Joe Wilson on Tuesday for shouting “you lie” to President Barack Obama during a speech to Congress last week.
The rare resolution of disapproval was pushed through by Democrats insisting that Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, had violated basic rules of decorum and civility in his outburst. Republicans characterized the vote as a witch hunt, and Wilson, surrounded by Republican supporters, refused to back down on his insistence that he owed the House no apology.
The mainly party-line vote was 240-179.
Wilson’s shout came during Obama’s speech after the president commented that illegal aliens would be ineligible for federal subsidies to buy health insurance. Republicans expressed their disbelief with sounds of disapproval, punctuated by Wilson’s outburst.
Such personalized expressions of disrespect for the president are unusual during speeches to the combined House and Senate. Since the 1980s, shouts of disapproval for policy statements have been relatively common, but not ones that disparage the president personally.
The Office of the House Historian said the resolution marked 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 is not about the substance of an issue but about the conduct we expect of one another in the course of doing our business,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the Democratic leader on the House floor. Hoyer sponsored the resolution with the party’s third-ranking official, Rep. James Clyburn, who, like Wilson, represents a South Carolina district.
At the urging of Republican leaders, Wilson telephoned the White House to apologize after his interruption. His party’s leaders also stood behind Wilson in objecting to the Democratic decision to criticize him formally.
“We’re here on some witch hunt, some partisan stunt, that the American people are not going to respect,” said Republican leader John Boehner. Visitors in the gallery applauded that remark, drawing a warning from the chair that such shows of approval or disapproval were not appropriate.
The short resolution said Wilson’s conduct was a “breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said she was inclined to “move on” and not take further action against Wilson, and Democrats, joined by some Republicans, told Wilson the issue would go away if he went to the House floor to apologize.
But the five-term conservative remained defiant to the end.
“I think it is clear to the American people that there are far more important issues facing this nation than what we’re addressing right now,” Wilson said in a floor speech. He said Obama had “graciously accepted my apology and the issue is over.”
Democratic leaders, headed by Clyburn, disagreed. “This is not a partisan stunt,” said Clyburn, whose district in South Carolina adjoins Wilson’s. “I do not participate in partisan stunts, and I think every member here knows that. This is about the proper decorum that should take place on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.’
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. Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, 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.”
But Rep. Candice Miller, one of seven Republicans speaking for Wilson, argued that “I think what he have here today is a teachable moment and it has nothing to do with race.”
Still, the dispute has drawn a spotlight on the undocumented aliens. Senators trying to negotiate a bipartisan deal, with the endorsement of the White House, are moving to craft a compromise bill that strengthens verification requirements. That could please some Republicans but also antagonize Hispanic lawmakers sensitive to rules making it harder for people to obtain health care.
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 in that it occurred not during floor debate but during a televised presidential address to Congress.
In 2007 Republicans unsuccessfully introduced a censure resolution against Democratic Rep. Pete Stark 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.
On Wilson, there were dissenters from party solidarity on both sides of the aisle. Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts voted “present. “I think it’s bad precedent to put us in charge of deciding whether people act like jerks. I don’t have time to monitor everyone’s civility.”
The dispute, by capturing the attention of Republican and Democratic loyalists, has been a financial bonanza for both Wilson and his expected challenger in next year’s election, Rob Miller. Each has raised some $1.5 million in contributions since the speech last week.