Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell (@LincolnMitchell) teaches in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His most recent book is “The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992.” (Kent State University Press, 2020) The opinions expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
After video surfaced of Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert making anti-Muslim comments about Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar in mid-November, Congress must again contend with a major question: how to handle members who step out of line, offending and potentially endangering the wellbeing of their colleagues.
In a video posted on Facebook before Thanksgiving, Boebert implied Omar had been mistaken for a terrorist – or member of the “jihad squad” – in a Capitol Hill elevator. On Friday, Boebert offered a weak apology on Twitter, saying she was sorry “to anyone in the Muslim community” she offended with her comment.
This comes on the heels of Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar being censured and stripped of committees for tweeting a photoshopped anime video in which he attacks New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and President Joe Biden with swords. Now, some think Boebert should face a similar fate and, at the very least, censure.
There is no question that Boebert’s comments were deeply bigoted, that Gosar’s violent fantasies are disturbing and that neither are conducting themselves the way most of us would like to see members of Congress – regardless of party – behave.
But it is not at all obvious that censure, and a corresponding stripping of committee assignments, is the right, or even useful, solution to this problem. Though it may have worked in the past, notably when Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy was censured by his colleagues in 1954 and faded into irrelevance, the US Senate – and Congress at large – is a very different institution today, increasing plagued by partisan politics.
And while censure and stripping of committees may make Boebert and Gosar’s political opponents feel like some form of justice has been served, they inevitably lead down a slippery slope. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already made it clear that Republicans like Gosar, who have been stripped of committee assignments, will be reinstated if and when the Republicans regain control of the US House of Representatives.
More troublingly, censuring Boebert and Gosar for their extreme and dangerous comments raises the possibility – or more accurately ensures – that similar methods will be used against Democratic members of the House the next time the Republicans are the majority party, which could happen as early as January 2023. Once again, McCarthy has said as much – arguing that Democrats have not taken similar action against their own members when they have stepped out of line, but that a Republican majority most certainly would.
Some may say if the GOP is going to censure Democrats in the future, that the Democrats in the House should not hesitate to censure members like Boebert and Gosar who say and post offensive material. There is some truth to that, but that argument is weakened by the reality that this kind of censure does not reform members of Congress who chose to traffic in bigotry or violence.
Despite facing potential punishment, Boebert has – even after issuing a weak apology – again attacked Omar. After a call between the two members, Boebert said, “I will fearlessly continue to put America first, never sympathizing with terrorists. Unfortunately Ilhan can’t say the same thing and our country is worse off for it.”
Boebert appears more interested in generating headlines than delivering for the district she represents. Censure – and particularly stripping of committee assignments – makes it much more difficult for members of Congress to deliver for their district, work on legislation that is particularly important to them or otherwise function as effective legislators.
The failure of the censure process and the likelihood that it will become a common partisan tool in the coming years leaves Congress with few choices for policing its own members. While it would be ideal if Congress could agree – in a bipartisan way – on a clear set of rules of decorum, which are more specific than the current code of conduct, as well consequences for members who broke those rules, that is unlikely.
Given the extremely partisan nature of Congress today – in which only two Republican members of the House voted to censure Gosar – Democrats and Republicans will not reach a necessary consensus to institutionalize new rules.
As much as the bigoted comments from Boebert and violent threats from Gosar may be troubling and repugnant, it may be best that Congress get out of the business of trying to police its members and leave that to the voters.
If the voters of Colorado’s 3rd district or Arizona’s 4th district want vulgar and racist representation, that is also their right. And, at least this approach – which gives the voters ultimate say – also means that Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and other prominent Democrats, who are widely disliked by the right, will likely not have to worry about censure if the GOP regains control of the House.