A Case Study in How the House of Representatives Damages Itself

If you even noticed the party-line vote in the US House back in June to censure Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, you may have forgotten it by now. Events do move quickly in Washington. And if you did pay attention, odds are good you either figured that Schiff got what he deserved (if you’re a Republican) or that the whole thing was a travesty (if you’re a Democrat).

But my concern isn’t the individuals or the arguments involved, it’s how it happened. And on that front, I have to agree that it was a travesty—not for partisan reasons, but because of the damage I think the House did to itself that day.

To understand why, you have to understand how the House came to vote on the Schiff measure in the first place. Ordinarily, potential disciplinary matters involving the conduct of a US representative are handled by the House Ethics Committee, which is specifically set up with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats so that there must be bipartisan support for moving forward with sanctioning one of their colleagues. This is important for any number of reasons, but especially when it comes to ethics or misconduct charges, which can be used as political weapons.

It's also vital because normally, it’s up to the Ethics Committee to investigate members and their conduct when questions are raised. Ideally, the evenly divided nature of the committee ensures that those investigations will be careful and thorough, since at least half the members looking at the results will be inclined to skepticism. 

In the Schiff case, however, none of that happened. Instead, the censure resolution was brought directly to the floor of the House, bypassing the Ethics Committee. This was a clear example of the GOP majority in the House flexing its muscles against the Democrat who’d chaired the House Intelligence Committee as it investigated then-President Donald Trump.

As it happens, Republicans weren’t setting a precedent with that move. Less than two years ago, in November, 2021, the Democrats who were then in control of the House brought to the floor and passed a censure resolution against GOP Rep. Paul Gosar, the first censure in over a decade. Gosar had photoshopped and posted an anime video to social media that showed him appearing to kill a fellow member of the House, Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and attacking President Joe Biden. The video outraged Democrats—who proceeded to bypass the Ethics Committee so they could bring Gosar’s censure directly to a vote. The Republican minority objected vociferously. Referring to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one GOP member said, “She’s created precedents that are going to reverberate for decades to come,” adding that Pelosi had “torn the fabric of this House apart.”

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. Whatever the merits of each case, it’s not hard to think of the Schiff censure as payback for the Gosar censure—or to be reminded of the destructive tit-for-tat cycles we more commonly associate with the Middle East, say, or Northern Ireland.

The Ethics Committee and its bipartisan processes exist for a reason: The institution of the House is stronger and more resilient when destructive partisan passions are constrained by procedure. If those procedures weren’t there, what we’ve just witnessed would be commonplace: one party punishing the other every time control of Congress changes hands. It may be unsatisfying to wait for the Ethics Committee to do its work—there’s a lot of frustration on Capitol Hill right now as it investigates GOP Rep. George Santos—but that’s the only way members can be assured that partisanship is taking a back seat to fair process.

By giving free rein to their members’ eagerness to score points against the other side, House leaders are setting the stage for further off-putting displays in the future. Though I’m not holding my breath, here’s hoping that the next time such an issue arises, cooler heads prevail.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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