Rep. William Stanbery of Ohio had gone too far, his colleagues determined in 1832. So egregious was Stanbery’s misconduct that he became the first member of the House of Representatives to be formally censured, and his colleagues delivered their disapproval by a more than 2-1 vote margin. His crime? Stanbery insulted then-House Speaker Andrew Stevenson that his eye might be “too frequently turned from the chair you occupy towards the White House.”
Throughout the 19th century and as recently as 1921, overwhelming majorities in the House voted to censure colleagues for “unparliamentary language.” That included saying something mean or accusatory to another member during debate, referring to Reconstruction legislation as a “monstrosity,” or – in the case of Rep. Thomas Blanton, Texas Democrat, inserting into the Congressional Record papers that recounted a salty-worded conversation (“vile” and “disgusting,” his accusers said) between a union and non-union printer at the Government Printing Office. After being censured, 293-0, Blanton fainted, hitting his head on the marble floor, before recovering and walking tearfully back to his office.
Much has changed since then on Capitol Hill, as technology, partisan politics and a race-to-the-bottom approach to public discourse has turned the august institution of the House into a verbal boxing ring. Congressional experts and some members fear it could turn to actual violence – if not by lawmakers themselves, then by followers egged on by their rhetoric.
“We’ve had nothing like this in recent history. It hasn’t been this bad since the Civil War. That’s an ominous sign. It’s very troubling,” says Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration and a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.
The rhetorical battle on the Hill – coming after an actual violent clash during the insurrection attempt on Jan. 6 – is “very serious and, unfortunately, I think the deepest sources of it are long-lasting and systemic,” says Keith Allred, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. Deeper ideological and social differences have grown since the late 1970s, and the parties increasingly are playing to their respective bases, says Allred, who taught negotiation and conflict resolution at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Rep. Paul Gosar, Arizona Republican, was censured this week for tweeting out a video – created by his congressional staff – that doctored a Japanese anime to show Gosar killing a cartoon version of his colleague, Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and threatening a cartoon version of President Joe Biden.
Gosar took down the video tweet but did not apologize. During floor debate over his censure, he compared himself to Alexander Hamilton – who endured an unsuccessful effort to censure him for financial improprieties and centuries later had a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on his life. He said it was a “false narrative” that the manipulated cartoon advocated violence against the Democratic lawmakers.
Almost all of his GOP colleagues stood by him. Only Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois joined Democrats in censuring Gosar and yanking his committee assignments.
That on its own represented a dramatic and historic shift. In the history of Congress, votes to censure colleagues have been overwhelming and often unanimous or nearly so, as members of Congress put party loyalty aside and weigh in on the question of rules and behavior. The last censure of a congressman in 2010, when Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel was cited for financial and tax transgressions, was 333-79. Votes in 1983 to censure GOP Rep. Daniel Crane of Illinois and Democratic Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, both for sexual relationships with congressional pages, were 421-3.
Bad behavior by members of Congress is hardly dictated by party affiliation. In fact, a plurality of those censured in House history have been Democrats, and all of the five House members expelled by their colleagues for malfeasance have been Democrats.
But the in-your-face rhetoric and behavior by lawmakers of late has come almost exclusively from the Republican Party, says Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. And it has nothing to do with ideology, Masket says, but rather about the successful political template used by former President Donald Trump, who gathered support while insulting myriad groups of people, tweeting insults on Twitter and suggesting protesters at his rallies should be dealt with through physical violence.
“Clearly President Trump was a sea-change in this kind of behavior,” Allred says. It was unprecedented in a president and unusual in American politics to be so brazen in stirring up divisions and doing it in this kind of in-your-face way.”
Democrats have had their misbehavers, Masket says, but the miscreants – such as former House members Alan Grayson of Florida and Anthony Weiner of New York – were sidelined by the party and eventually left office. In the Senate, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken was pushed out amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Only a few years ago, Masket notes, Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, “basically got booted out of his own caucus for saying outlandish things they felt were harming the party. Now, that sort of behavior is something that gets a guy a promotion.”
Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, for example, might want to keep a low profile while he’s under investigation for alleged sex trafficking – charges Gaetz vehemently denies. Instead, Gaetz has been needling liberals and Democrats relentlessly, most recently saying he might hire Kyle Rittenhouse, on trial for fatally shooting two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as an intern in his congressional office.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Georgia Republican, had her committee assignments taken away after she penned tweets endorsing the execution of Democrats and advanced anti-Semitic and Islamophobic conspiracy theories.
Far from retreating, Greene has said she would be “wasting her time” serving on committees because she could not talk to voters as much and build support. She has complained almost proudly about the tens of thousands of dollars in fines she has been hit with for not wearing a mask on the floor of the House, as rules require.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn, North Carolina Republican, has also made his name by issuing bombastic tweets, repeating discredited claims that the 2020 election was stolen and warning of “bloodshed” in an August speech if elections “continue to be rigged.” (A spokesperson at the time said Cawthorn was advocating against violence with the remark.)
Usually, freshmen like Greene and Cawthorn start their House careers by building a legislative record and developing relationships and expertise. But in their case, the slash-and-burn approach is working, says Chris Cooper, a political science professor at West Carolina University.
“It’s not about policy. It’s about comms (communications),” Cooper says. “It’s a way to get attention and exert power. It’s striking to me that these are freshmen members we’re having conversations about. That says to me that they’re winning, in a really skewed way. It’s scary.”
Fellow GOP freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert is using the same approach in her Colorado district, brandishing her firearms and slamming Democrats with rumors and conspiracy theories. On the floor, during the Gosar debate, she accused one Democrat of sleeping with a Chinese spy and another of marrying her own brother.
The pro-gun Boebert was fined earlier this year for setting off metal detectors when she was entering the House chamber. Several other Republicans and one Democrat have been fined for refusing or failing to go through the devices, which were installed after the Jan. 6 attacks.
“Within the Republican Party, in her district, this is what they like about her – bombastic, creating headlines, (offending) Democrats,” says Masket. “This sort of outrageous behavior gets attention, and there’s a certain wing of the party that you get donations out of because of that.”
It’s “a badge of honor” to aggravate those perceived as political opponents, he adds. “In some ways, it’s better (for Republicans) to be known and irritating than to be unknown and polite.”
That seems to be the case for Gosar. Minutes after his colleagues censured him, he retweeted the offending video.