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Why Rep. Paul Gosar’s censure matters

The House just took an important stand against violence in politics.

Rep. Paul Gosar.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) speaks during the Freedom Caucus press conference on immigration outside the Capitol on March 17, 2021.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

The House on Wednesday voted 223-207 to censure Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), more than a week after he posted an animated video edited to depict him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and brandishing weapons at President Joe Biden.

Following the censure, Gosar will be forced to stand in the middle of the House chamber as a statement condemning his actions is read to him in front of all the members. Additionally, he’ll lose his committee assignments, including seats on the Oversight Committee and the Natural Resources Committee, a penalty Democrats also included in this resolution.

Gosar’s censure — the second most severe punishment a House member can receive, after expulsion — is significant for several reasons. In addition to doling out a public rebuke, it sends an important message against violent rhetoric, which in politics is often disproportionately targeted toward women of color. The loss of committee seats in particular is notable: It’s through them that lawmakers are able to weigh in on policy and conduct government oversight — and without them, they have little power.

“We cannot have members joking about murdering each other, as well as threatening the president of the United States,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said earlier this week.

While Democrats have broadly condemned Gosar’s actions, Republican leadership has shied away from issuing any outright criticism. “I called him when I heard about the video, and he made a statement that he doesn’t support violence, and he took the video down,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a CNN interview.

Gosar has removed the video following significant backlash, and issued a statement saying he does not “espouse violence or harm towards any Member of Congress or Mr. Biden,” but he hasn’t apologized.

Democrats hope the censure vote on Wednesday serves as an explicit condemnation of Gosar’s post, and draws a line regarding the type of behavior lawmakers are willing to accept. Violent language by members has become an especially sensitive issue after the January 6 insurrection highlighted how speeches encouraging violence could translate to real-world deaths.

“When Republicans don’t condemn death threats against their colleagues ... it sends a message to the public that these threats are condoned,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) in a Wednesday floor speech. This resolution “reinforces that this behavior will not be tolerated.”

Why the censure vote matters

The censure vote sets an important precedent for how Congress responds to the sorts of statements about violence some Republican lawmakers have become increasingly comfortable making.

It’s quite rare for the House to actually censure a member: The lower chamber has only done it 23 times before, the last time being in 2010 when then-Rep. Charlie Rangel was censured for ethics violations related to financial misconduct. More recently, the House has voted to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) of her committee assignments after she supported comments calling for violence toward Democrats.

Censure, reprimand, and expulsion are different ways the House can penalize members. Censure and reprimand only require a simple majority in the House, which Democrats possess, while expulsion requires a two-thirds majority.

If a member is censured or reprimanded, they’re able to retain their seat. Unlike a censure, reprimand does not include what’s effectively a public admonishing.

In the past, lawmakers have sometimes been subject to reviews by an ethics committee before a censure vote — something that Democrats have bypassed in Gosar’s case because of how clear-cut his actions have been, according to Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL).

“There are no open factual questions here for the Ethics Committee to resolve, nor any unresolved questions of intent,” Deutch, the chair of the Ethics Committee, said in floor remarks. “It’s clear from the video, and from Representative Gosar’s public comments minimizing it, that censure is appropriate.”

Democrats emphasize that this censure vote is necessary to underscore their condemnation of violence in politics, especially after the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Additionally, they note that it’s vital to highlight that violence toward women, including lawmakers of color who are often the targets of extreme abuse, is unacceptable.

“As the events of January 6th have shown, such vicious and vulgar messaging can and does foment actual violence,” a group of Democratic lawmakers who introduced the censure resolution said in a statement. “Violence against women in politics is a global phenomenon meant to silence women and discourage them from seeking positions of authority and participating in public life, with women of color disproportionately impacted. Minority Leader McCarthy’s silence is tacit approval and just as dangerous.”

Censure is the least the House can do

The censure resolution — specifically provisions that will remove Gosar from his committee assignments — will have concrete effects, including limiting his impact on hearings and policy those panels work on.

In the past, lawmakers who’ve lost these assignments have been left scrambling to figure out other ways they can influence legislation and advance positions they hold. Now-former Rep. Chris Collins, who lost his committee assignments in 2018, told Politico that he would focus his energies on more constituent engagement and participation in different caucuses.

“They basically have nothing to do,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) told the publication when he was asked about lawmakers who were booted from committees. “If you’re cast out of the organized bodies and committees of Congress, and you’re kind of just a hitchhiker on the floor, there’s very little influence you can have in the House of Representatives.”

Multiple Democrats have also argued that Gosar’s actions are grounds for expulsion given the depictions of violence the video contains. “When someone sends out a tweet or any other illustration of him or her murdering somebody on the House floor ... that person should not even be a member of this body,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) told CNN.

Reaching the two-thirds vote threshold for expulsion, however, would likely be tough given Democrats’ narrow majority. Advancing a vote like that would take around 290 votes in the House, meaning dozens of Republicans would have to join the 221-member Democratic caucus to pass it. That would probably be a long shot since Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are the only two Republicans who backed the censure resolution. (Previously, 11 Republicans voted to strip Greene of her committee assignments.)

Many Republicans’ unwillingness to condemn one of their own members suggests that censure is likely the most severe consequence Gosar will face for now.

“Threatening the life of a colleague is grounds for expulsion,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters on Tuesday. “But given the Republican Party — especially the leader — is too cowardly to really enforce any standard of conduct ... censure and committee removal is the next most appropriate step.”

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