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Why Republicans are censuring Adam Schiff

The reasons the GOP is so eager for political revenge.

Adam Schiff on Capitol Hill with the Capitol dome in the background.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) gaggles with reporters as he walks down the steps of the House of Representatives at the US Capitol on June 21, 2023, in Washington, DC.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

After failing to wrangle the votes last week, House Republicans mustered the majority needed to censure Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) on Wednesday. That move is among the latest Republican attacks against prominent Democrats — including members of the Biden administration and Congress — and it’s one that’s aimed at energizing the GOP base ahead of the 2024 election.

Republicans targeted Schiff specifically because of his leading role in former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment proceeding as well as his role in investigating possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. As part of the House Intelligence Committee inquiry into the subject, Schiff alleged there was strong evidence of potential collusion, though Republicans argue that special counsel Robert Mueller’s report later disputed this conclusion.

“Mr. Schiff exploited his position as chair of Intel Committee, and every opportunity possible, threatening national security, undermining our duly elected president and bringing dishonor upon the institution,” Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL), the sponsor of the censure resolution, said prior to the vote.

Though the censure was framed as being about holding Schiff accountable, it’s ultimately part of a broader Republican political strategy. Many conservative voters and lawmakers want retribution after House Democrats launched two impeachment efforts against Trump, censured Rep. Paul Gosar and removed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene from her committees. Censuring Schiff allowed House Republican leadership to give that faction of the caucus a win, while also showing the party’s most devoted voters that the GOP is using its power to scrutinize Democrats and Biden.

After a vote on Schiff’s prior censure failed, Trump — who has a large lead in primary polls, and is still seen as a kingmaker, despite his mixed 2022 recordargued that any House member that voted against it should face a primary challenge.

“Republicans are responding rationally to electoral incentives,” Cook Political House expert Dave Wasserman told Vox. “Most of them represent overwhelmingly red districts where their party’s base are demanding that they take maximum action against the Biden administration. … This is the reddest red meat that House Republicans could be throwing to the base.”

Republicans’ efforts are all about the base

Republicans’ censure resolution was approved 213-209, with six GOP members, including five who are also on the Ethics Committee, voting present. The measure was an updated version of the one that failed last week: The earlier version included the possibility of a $16 million fine if Schiff was found guilty of misconduct, and that provision has since been dropped due to some members’ concerns about it.

After the vote passed, Schiff was asked to stand in the center of the House where he was verbally reprimanded by Speaker Kevin McCarthy. As the proceeding was taking place, Democrats yelled “Shame!” and “Disgrace!” at their GOP colleagues. Schiff was quick to denounce the censure, calling it “petty political payback.” And some Democrats accused Republicans of hypocrisy, noting they opted to censure Schiff even as they’ve stopped short of similarly disciplining members like Rep. George Santos (R-NY), who has been indicted for fraud and money laundering.

Schiff’s censure could be the first of a series of actions that Republicans take this week to hit back at Democrats. Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert has introduced an impeachment resolution targeting President Joe Biden, which is set to be tabled on the House floor, while Rep. Greene is on track to introduce a similar impeachment resolution taking aim at FBI Director Christopher Wray. In a closed-door meeting, though, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy warned that this might not be the right time to pursue a Biden impeachment, arguing that Republicans have to build the case first.

“It’s simply a matter of trying to placate the Trumpist base through the politics of retribution,” says American University government professor David Barker. “Now that they have the majority, they are wielding that power to try to ‘give the Dems a taste of their own medicine.’”

The Democrat-led impeachments and punishments weren’t the same as those currently moving through the House, however. Gosar and Greene were penalized for supporting threats of violence against their fellow lawmakers, while Trump was first impeached for abuse of power and obstructing Congress, then for his role in the January 6 insurrection.

Republicans also have to navigate the balance of catering to their base and not turning off moderate voters, who are opposed to these acts of political revenge. That’s part of the reason House leadership has been more circumspect about pursuing an impeachment of Biden. If House Republicans overreach, after all, they’d risk losing their narrow majority and hurting their electoral chances with swing voters.

“They have 18 members from districts that Biden carried in 2020. This is fraught with peril for those Republicans,” says Wasserman.

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