The folly of attempting to censure Steve King

After congressman Steve King decided to bemoan how phrases such as white nationalist and white supremacist “became offensive” the expected media firestorm broke out and it continues into the weekend. While I’ve written here on multiple occasions that the term “nationalist” is absolutely fine in its traditional meaning (a person who strongly identifies with their own nation and vigorously supports its interests) when you put the word “white” in front of it you’ve basically lost the argument. “White supremacist” has no place in our public debate because we’re supposed to be a colorblind society.

But now that his statements are on the record, what to do about it? When I turned on CNN this morning, Victor Blackwell was interviewing one of the members and asking if they would support censuring King. It’s a subject which has been getting a lot of play this week, particularly among Democrats, and the new Speaker of the House hasn’t ruled it out yet. (Washington Post)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday left open the possibility of House action to punish Rep. Steve King over his history of inflammatory remarks as the Iowa Republican’s recent defense of white nationalism created a firestorm.

“We’ll see what we do about Steve King, but nonetheless nothing is shocking anymore, right?” Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters. “The new normal around here is to praise white nationalism as something that shouldn’t be shunned.” …

A number of Democrats are calling on House leaders to consider a resolution to censure King, a vote that would put Republicans on record.

“The U.S. House of Representatives must censure Rep. Steve King for his racists remarks,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) tweeted, adding: “Support for white supremacist ideology should have no place in Congress.”

Questioned whether she would take action, Pelosi said, “I’m not prepared to make any announcement about that right now, but needless to say there is interest in doing something.”

This comes down to less of a question of whether the House can do it and more one of if they should do it. The House has censured members 21 times over the course of the nation’s history. (The last one being Charlie Rangel for repeated tax law violations.) The vast majority were for instances of breaking House rules, violations of the law and even physical assaults on other members.

But there have been exceptions to that norm. The very first censure was leveled against William Stanberry of Ohio for the offense of “insulting the Speaker of the House.” In 1867, John Hunter was censured for “insulting a member during a debate.” There have been a few others, so clearly the precedent exists for censuring members of Congress over things they’ve said.

But is that really the standard we need in a country which prioritizes freedom of speech and has enshrined it in the Bill of Rights, even if the language is widely determined to be offensive? Surely there are better ways to handle this if the vast majority of members want to see King punished for his speech. He can be removed from his choice committee seats or even ejected from the GOP caucus if they find his comments grievous enough.

But in the end, the real judges of King’s actions and statements are the voters in his district. He’s already drawn a primary challenger for the next cycle and some prominent Republicans are voicing their support for the challenger. Renewing the tradition of using the House Censure for the words people say sends a poor message and should be discouraged.