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How House has handled other Joe Wilson-like moments

House Democrats consider a resolution of disapproval for 'You lie!' outburst.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina, center, listens during President Barack Obama's speech on health care to a joint session of Congress Sept. 9 on Capitol Hill.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

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Unless he apologizes to Congress, Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina on Tuesday is likely to be reproached by the House for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama.

And if recent history is any guide, it is a punishment that will have few, if any, lasting consequences.

That is because rebukes, disapprovals, and other verbal scoldings are fairly low in the hierarchy of punishments that Congress has the power to mete out to its members.

“There is an arsenal of retaliatory weapons that both chambers have. Mostly, they are inconsequential politically,” says Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

A quick look at the list of members who have been admonished by a vote of the full House in recent years shows that some weren’t hurt much by the supposed ignominy. Others recovered from any political problems brought on by the underlying conduct that produced the disapproval.

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D) of Massachusetts, for instance, at one point became tired of the constant verbal attacks on the Democratic Party by a then-backbencher, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. In debate, he called the attacks “the lowest thing I’ve seen in my 32 years in Congress."

Since that was a personal comment about a member – a breach of House etiquette – Mr. O’Neill officially had his own words struck from the congressional record. It was the first time a speaker had suffered such a punishment since 1798.


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