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Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina has received a proverbial slap on the wrist for yelling "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's recent address to Congress.
The scuffle officially ended Sept. 15, 2009, when the House of Representatives passed 240-179 a resolution disapproving of Wilson's behavior during the speech six days earlier.
But before the vote, Republican Leader John Boehner gave the majority a piece of his mind.
"We all know Joe Wilson. He is a decent man. And to put him through this on the floor of the House I think is unacceptable, and it is a partisan stunt," Boehner said on the House floor. "There has been behavior that has gone on around here far more serious than this, and it didn't bring a resolution to the floor to condemn someone's behavior. Yes people have made mistakes. Some have come down to the floor and apologized, others have not. But none of it -- none of it -- required a resolution. ... Never has this happened before."
Passing the resolution would set a bad precedent, Boehner said.
Given all the mischief lawmakers have gotten themselves into in the past, we wondered whether Boehner was right, that the House had never passed a resolution of disapproval to condemn a member's behavior.
Some background: During his Sept. 9 speech, Obama said, "There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false — the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally."
Wilson yelled from the crowd, "You lie!" We put Wilson's outburst to the Truth-O-Meter, which you can read about here .
According to the Constitution, Congress has a right to punish its own members for such misconduct.
Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2 of the Constitution states that, "Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.”
And it turns out such reprimands can come in multiple forms, according to the Office of the Historian of the House of Representatives.
An expulsion, for example, requires a two-thirds majority vote in the House. The maneuver was most recently used on July 24, 2002, to rid the chamber of former Rep. James Traficant, a Democrat from Ohio who went to jail for trading political favors for cash and gifts. He was released from prison on Sept. 2, 2009.
Other examples include censures and reprimands, which only require a majority for passage and simply express a formal disapproval of the conduct.
A resolution of disapproval -- Wilson's punishment -- is more often used as a way for the House to condemn a foreign or executive branch action. It is a sentiment and carries no force of law.
However, it is rarely used as an internal disciplinary tool, said Anthony Wallis, research analyst for the historian's office, who described the action as the least severe of the many forms of congressional punishment.
While there may be more such instances deep in congressional history - finding them would require reviewing reams of legislation introduced since the founding of Congress - the only example the historian's office could readily find was against Rep. Bill Thomas, who, in 2003 as the Republican chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, called in the U.S. Capitol Police to remove Democratic panel members who were protesting Thomas' handling of a pension bill. The resolution was dropped by a vote of 170-143.
So, back to Boehner's claim. In recent history, there's only been one instance of the chamber specifically using a resolution of disapproval to punish a lawmaker, though the historian's office said there may be more. Given that small bit of uncertainty, we give Boehner a Mostly True.
The Congressional Record, Sept. 15, 2009
The United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2 , accessed Sept. 16, 2009
CNN, Thomas's Police State , by Robert Novak, July 24, 2003
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Former Rep. James Traficant to be released from prison on Sept. 2 , by Sabrina Eaton, Aug. 7, 2009
Interview and e-mail exchange with Anthony Walls, Research Analyst. Office of the Historian, Sept, 16, 2009
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