Last week, nearly 150 House Democrats voted to censure Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) for a wide range of racist comments he made in the past two years, which, if true, likely constituted a breach of the chamber’s decorum rule that a member should “refrain from conduct unbecoming a member of the House in any matter whatsoever.”
The vote, not surprisingly, was bipartisan and King’s colleagues in the Republican caucus rebuked him. Yet his overstated defense of his infamous comment about white nationalist Richard Spencer, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” also receives at least some support from fellow Republicans. It’s a recurring theme that they’ve come to love.
Their support for King’s dogged defense of the reference is just one telling example of how thoughtful and relevant the House’s censure vote really was.
Beyond the vote itself — a rarity in contemporary congressional politics — the quality of the congressional debate on the issue, which Republicans often defame when it comes to their critics, showed why it was so well-considered. While doing so, Democrats laid out the facts of the case against King, both in serious and bipartisan fashion, demonstrating that his refusal to use words like “heckler’s veto” is no disqualifier for one of Congress’ most powerful seats.
First, let’s look at the facts in King’s defense. In an interview with The New York Times in 2016, King said that he would “just prefer not to talk about [King’s racial identity], because you’ve just turned into a supermodel.” That comment comes from a year earlier, when King traveled to Rwanda with a Bible that he took to describe “the characteristics of their rebirth and recovery.”
Such behavior would hardly be a disqualifier for most politicians, but it particularly does not jibe with House norms on decorum. In fact, even King’s parents raised him to respect the institution of Congress as a place for serious debate and deliberation, not as a playground for matters of simple entertainment. And for King to be an effective representative in the House, he should represent people of all walks of life, not just ones that agree with him.
It’s hard to see how a light censure would restore the honor of Congress or the standing of this institution in the eyes of the people, yet House Republicans argue that, in King’s mind, that’s not necessary.
That belief may well be rooted in the reality that King has consistently generated political capital among other Republicans as well as voters in his district.
It’s true that King has had his best year yet in the House, notching a string of high-profile votes and being featured in countless fundraising emails from House Republicans, yet that gives him little credit for anything that comes out of the House.
Still, he is bound by House rules and must attend all floor votes. Most members of the body either don’t make that much noise about it or don’t go to them at all.
For instance, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) often ignore the House floor, even when their colleagues are absent.
It’s also true that a handful of House Republicans broke from their party during last week’s vote to censure King, acknowledging their friendship with King in exchange for his support.
It may be the case that certain members of the GOP caucus might want to be able to work with King, given that they have limited access to the chamber’s prized leader’s chair.
A House resolution that censures King for such behavior has never before been used in legislative history and has only been used against Congressmen who broke various rules or stepped out of bounds. The Hill has called it “historic” and said that it would be “hard to think of another step that [King] has taken that has been so widely condemned.”
There’s also a good deal of discussion about the practice of censuring Congressmen for media-generated controversies. It’s unclear, though, whether that practice will be extended to the House of Representatives or even if it has any legal standing. In any case, it’s easy to see why King wouldn’t want to adopt a more high-profile form of censure.
It’s hard to imagine that it would enhance his career