Petty insults, sexual misconduct with minors, and flat-out corruption: House censure has gone from frivolous, to serious, to frivolous again

On Tuesday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan became the 26th lawmaker to be censured by the House in American history.
On Tuesday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan became the 26th lawmaker to be censured by the House in American history.Ali Khaligh/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images
  • Rep. Rashida Tlaib's censure was the most bipartisan in over a decade.

  • In recent history, it's been used for far graver offenses, like sexual misconduct or corruption.

  • But it's become more commonplace — and as a result, less meaningful — in the last few years.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan was censured by the House on Tuesday night for her rhetoric on Israel, making her the 26th lawmaker in American history to face such a punishment.

It was also the most bipartisan censure vote in nearly 13 years, garnering the support of 22 Democrats and the vast majority of the House Republican conference.

Nonetheless, the censure came in response to an offense far less grave than censures in recent memory — the GOP-led resolution largely focused on the Palestinian American congresswoman's comments about Israel and the use of a popular pro-Palestinian slogan.

But the censure of Tlaib isn't the first questionable censure to take place this year, and it comes as lawmakers in both parties introduce a flurry of resolutions to officially reprimand lawmakers on the other side for various comments and actions they've made.

Here's how the tool has historically been used — and how we got to the current situation.

Insults in the 1800's

A simple look at the history reveals an baffling reality: The first time that a lawmaker ever faced censure, it was for insults made on the House floor during a debate.

In July 1832, Rep. William Stanberry of Ohio was censured for saying that then-Speaker Andrew Stevenson's eyes were "too frequently turned from the chair you occupy toward the White House."

That's pretty quaint by today's standards. Lawmakers lodge far nastier insults against one another all the time, occasionally during actual debate on the House floor.

The next time it happened was in 1842, when Rep. Joshua Giddings of Ohio was censured for violating a "gag rule" forbidding the consideration of anti-slavery resolutions. That rule lasted from the mid-1830s until 1844.

The 1800s are rife with other uses of the tool for offenses that would be considered minor by today's standards.

However, there were occasions where it made a lot of sense.

In 1856, Rep. Laurence Keitt was censured for helping to assault Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane, resulting in Sumner having to take leave from his duties for three years.

Censure becomes even more rare

In the 1900s and into the 2000s, censure became an even rarer occurrence: just 6 lawmakers faced censure between 1900 and 2010.

During this period, it was typically used for more grave offenses, such as fraud or receiving improper gifts.

In 1983, two lawmakers — Republican Rep. Dan Crane of Illinois and Democratic Rep. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts — were censured after the House Ethics Committee found that they had engaged in sexual relationships with underaged House pages.

Those votes were lopsided, with just three lawmakers voting against both censures.

And in 2010, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York was censured for misusing official resources for campaign business in an overwhelming bipartisan vote — the most bipartisan vote until Tlaib's censure on Tuesday.

The censure of Paul Gosar

In November of 2021, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona was censured and removed from his committees for posting an anime video depicting him killing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

It was the first time the tool had been used in nearly 11 years.

Democrats argued that Gosar deserved it because the video was perceived as a threat to the congresswoman's life, while Republicans largely stood by Gosar, characterizing the video as a non-issue that didn't merit such punishment. Just two Republicans voted with Democrats.

In Republicans' eyes, the Gosar censure set a new precedent, reviving it as a tool that can be wielded against political opponents.

That set the stage for them to begin using it even more when they reassumed control of the chamber this year.

Our present-day censure wars

Under their new majority, Republicans changed House rules to allow individual members to force votes on resolutions.

That's opened the floodgates for not just censure resolutions, but expulsion resolutions — the House has now voted twice on resolutions to expel scandal-plagued Rep. George Santos of New York.

This year, the first shot on censure was arguably fired by Republican Rep. Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, who forced a vote on a censure resolution that would have levied a $16 million fine Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California over a series of GOP grievances with his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation.

That vote failed, so House Republicans removed the fine. It later passed, but Democrats rallied around Schiff, and it was seen as only a boon to his ongoing Senate campaign in California.

Since then, Republicans and Democrats have floated various censure resolutions against members of the other party, including potential Democratic-led censures of Santos and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

Tuesday's vote to censure Tlaib was originally spurred by Greene, who accused the Michigan Democrat of "leading an insurrection" by speaking to pro-Palestinian protesters on Capitol Hill. Nearly two dozen of Greene's GOP colleagues voted that down, leading Republican Rep. Rich McCormick of Georgia to introduce a narrower resolution that ultimately passed.

The House may still vote this week on a resolution from Democratic Rep. Sara Jacobs to censure Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Florida for comparing Palestinian civilians to Nazis.

But for many, the increased censures have clearly become a nuisance.

"These censure resolutions are not appropriate an instances where people say things that we don't agree with," a frustrated Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland told reporters on Tuesday.

Hoyer, the former House Majority Leader, said he "violently" disagreed with Tlaib but said there has to be room for free speech.

"I'm strongly for what Israel is doing," said Hoyer. "But that does not mean that others who express themselves are not able to do that without being called to the dock."

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