A few more observations on the Joe Wilson matter. A Fox News reporter this morning commented that Wilson’s conduct violated section 370 of the House Rules and Manual. This is true, sort of. Section 370 is actually the provision of Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice which states “[i]n Parliament, to speak irreverently or seditiously against the King is against order.” As the House Parliamentarian’s Notes observe, this provision is “manifestly inapplicable” to the House of Representatives. However, because the House Rules do not directly address the subject, this section is where the Parliamentarian has collected the rulings (quoted in my previous post) regarding “personal abuse, innuendo, or ridicule of the President.”
Second, there has been some more explanation regarding the “resolution of disapproval.” As I surmised, this resolution is intended to be a form of punishment. One article says that “[r]esolutions of disapproval are a rare, though not unprecedented, way of punishing a member.” Maybe so, but this historical summary of conduct cases in the House, compiled by the Ethics Committee, contains no evidence that the House has ever used a “resolution of disapproval” to punish a member.
Apparently the “resolution of disapproval” is meant to be a milder punishment than the recognized punishments of censure or reprimand. According to Rule 24(g) of the Rules of the House Ethics Committee, reprimand is appropriate for “serious violations” and censure is appropriate for “more serious violations.” Why, exactly, the House would need to establish yet another level of verbal chastisement for Representative Wilson is a matter of speculation. Perhaps it was deemed unwise to equate Wilson’s behavior with that of those who have been previously reprimanded by the House. Representative Barney Frank, for example, was reprimanded in 1990 for “1) Use of personal residence for prostitution by third parties, 2) improper contacts with probation office on behalf of personal assistant, 3) improper dismissal of assistant’s parking tickets, and 4) sexual activity in the House gymnasium.”
Finally, it is worth mentioning a precedent that is likely to be discussed in the debate on the resolution of disapproval. On October 18, 2007, Representative Pete Stark, in discussing a children’s health care bill, stated: ‘‘You don’t have money to fund the war or children. But you’re going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the President’ amusement.’’ The chair responded to this comment by noting “Members are reminded not to engage in personalities toward the President.” This, however, was not sufficient for Minority Leader Boehner, who introduced a resolution to censure Stark, which resolution was tabled by a vote of 196 to 173.
I think fair-minded people will agree that Stark’s comment was significantly worse, from the standpoint of heaping opprobrium on the president, than Wilson’s. While Stark’s comment was not made during a presidential address, it equally lacked any legitimate connection to a House power or duty, and was at least as likely to cause ill-feeling, estrangement and loss of respect between the branches. It is therefore difficult to see how one could justify punishing Wilson if one did not support punishing Stark.
The one distinction that favors Stark is that he apologized on the House floor, which is what Wilson’s critics have demanded (and probably why they have demanded it). However, Stark did not apologize until after the resolution of censure was tabled, and there is no particular reason to believe that he would have been punished if he had not apologized. More importantly, it is unclear why a personal apology offered to the President, as occurred in Wilson’s case, should be less of a mitigating factor than an apology given on the House floor. (The House Ethics Committee has considered personal apologies as mitigating factors in the past, for example in the case of personal apologies made by members to Representative Nick Smith after they made “regrettable” comments to him during the vote on the Medicare Prescription Drug bill of 2003).