[This story has been updated with the results of the censure vote.]
For one day in the nation’s capital in July 2002, the hottest ticket in town was to the visitors’ gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives.
That’s because Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio) was getting expelled, following his conviction two months earlier on multiple felony charges. Only one other member of Congress was expelled in the twentieth century—Rep. Michael Myers (D-Penn.), a participant in ABSCAM—and the only three prior expulsions resulted from the Civil War. Very few congressional scandals reach the point where the notion of expulsion is even raised; usually, members have the honor (or sense of shame) to resign or retire.
Traficant was a crook, though a funny one. Representatives are entitled to give one-minute speeches when the House convenes. Traficant reveled in these minute-long rants: He’d take bits of pop culture or news and use them to make a point, earning a devoted following among C-SPAN geeks for his “Beam me up, Mr. Speaker!” catchphrase.
Twenty years ago, Traficant was a wacky outlier. Nowadays, with the great zeitgeisty maw of social media demanding constant feeding, many average, un-cool representatives and senators feel compelled to do zany things for attention. Think of the idiotic stunts—Ted Cruz’s bacon machine gun, anyone?—or of the ways that meme culture has spread on Capitol Hill.
Meme culture is particularly prevalent on the Republican side of the aisle. Maybe this can be chalked up to the base—memes have long been popular in conservative culture (think of the emails your aunt sent you during the 2008 election) or maybe it has to do with the joy that prominent right-leaning figures from Donald Trump on down take in trolling. Who needs stodgy, staid press releases when memes and “shitposting” are available instead?
Enter Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona. He’s crazy. He’s promoted lies about the 2020 election. He was—as even his own siblings have felt compelled to condemn him for being—one of the “architects of the January 6 insurrection”:
This afternoon, the House decided in a largely party-line vote to censure Gosar and strip him of his committee assignments. When Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was stripped of her committee assignments in February, she was a new member and so had no record of any committee work. But Gosar has been in Congress for a decade, and has served that whole time the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Natural Resources Committee. The latter committee is fairly important for Gosar’s district, and booting him from it may have real consequences for him. A comparison better than MTG’s case is that of then-Rep. Steve King, who in 2019 was stripped of his committee assignments—including his spot on the Agriculture Committee, important to his state of Iowa—for calling immigrants “dirt” and taking too friendly a view of white nationalism.
What was it that finally brought Gosar, long known for his inflammatory rhetoric, provocative memes, and conspiratorial antics, to the point of being censured by the House? He posted (and later deleted) what he called a “symbolic cartoon”—an anime video—that depicted violence against President Joe Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who serves with him on Oversight and Government Reform.
I’m pretty good at counting votes, and the votes are there to strip Gosar of his committee assignments and censure him. But very few of the votes will be Republican—probably fewer than 10. [UPDATE: Ultimately only two Republicans voted to censure Gosar: Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.] No surprise there: Kevin McCarthy is trying to put January 6th in the rearview mirror, and while Gosar is partially responsible for the events of the insurrection, what about Reps. Mo Brooks and Madison Cawthorn, among others?
Censure requires the member in question to be present to hear why they’re being censured, as then-Rep. Charlie Rangel was in 2010. And so, immediately after this afternoon’s vote, Gosar was called to the well of the House, where Speaker Pelosi read out the resolution of censure.
Why not expel Gosar? Part of the reason that remedy is rarely used is that it requires a two-thirds vote, and there are nowhere near enough votes for that. But as the January 6th Committee does its work, perhaps we’ll find out more about what certain Republican lawmakers did that could justify expulsion.
Parting shot: Want a sense of the moral mismatch between the two parties? While the Democratic party decided that Gosar should be censured and should lose his committee assignments for posting a meme calling for violence against a fellow member and the president (let alone his helping to stir up January 6th), House Republicans want to strip thirteen of their own members of committee assignments just for supporting the infrastructure bill.