Editorial: Apology in Order

Posted September 15, 2009 at 6:28pm

Two years ago, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) tearfully apologized to the House for outrageous remarks that he’d made on the floor the week before accusing President George W. Bush of lying and of sending young Americans “to get their heads blown off for [his] amusement.—

Stark’s apology to the House should have served as precedent for an apology by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for embarrassing himself and the institution by shouting “You lie!— at President Barack Obama during his speech to a joint session of Congress last week.

Wilson’s failure to apologize to the House — and his defiant assertion even yesterday that Democrats were avoiding important work to address his behavior — fully justifies the House voting for a resolution of disapproval of Wilson, the weakest form of punishment that House rules allow.

Stark and Wilson violated a House rule — specifically, Section 370 of Jefferson’s Manual — prohibiting disparaging personal remarks against the president, explicitly including calling him a liar.

Stark’s accusation certainly was more offensive than Wilson’s, but the circumstances of Wilson’s outburst, to Obama directly and on national television, make an apology for breaching decorum equally in order.

In 2007, moreover, Stark evidenced more contrition than Wilson has shown. After issuing a statement apologizing to Obama and telephoning the White House to reiterate it, Wilson put out a fundraising video asserting he would not be “muzzled— and was caught on television autographing a photo of himself yelling at the president.

Wilson was lionized by Tea Party demonstrators who thronged the nation’s capital last weekend, some of whom carried signs likening Obama to Adolf Hitler and accusing him of practicing communism.

Obviously, such demonstrators are entirely within their constitutional rights, but the House is not a Tea Party — or a CodePink rally. It is a place for vigorous debate of issues, but not personal insults.

That’s why House rules exist and need to be enforced when they are violated. On a number of occasions when Democrats accused Bush of lying about Iraq, they were reminded of the rules by the speaker pro tem without further action.

Not only is Wilson defying the Stark precedent, so are Republican leaders.

In 2007, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) filed a resolution of censure against Stark — a much harsher punishment than a “reprimand— or “disapproval,— one down from expulsion. Stark apologized immediately after the resolution was tabled.

This year, after Wilson refused to apologize on the floor, Boehner said he’d oppose the milder disapproval motion, even though in 2007 Boehner filed a motion of disapproval after a Democratic member of the House Rules Committee brought up an amendment after its Republican sponsor had asked that it be withdrawn.

Wilson’s outburst deserved a formal apology to the House. His refusal justifies disapproval.