Last week, the House voted on a resolution to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., for her statements about the war between Israel and Hamas. It came just a few months after House Republicans censured Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., as revenge for his role in impeaching former President Donald Trump. Those resolutions were both fast-tracked to the floor, taking advantage of a parliamentary quirk that deems them “privileged,” as they deal with the “privileges of the House.”
There’s nothing new about the use of privileged resolutions, which must be voted on within two legislative days once they are introduced. Over the last few decades, they’ve often been used as tools for the minority party to force votes that are more about scoring political points than simply making sure the House is functioning properly. But the censures of Tlaib and Schiff are different. They show that, despite being in the majority, Republicans have resorted to using their privilege to create the illusion of action as their majority squabbles over how to achieve anything substantive.
House rules define so-called questions of privilege as those that deal with the “safety, dignity, and the integrity of its proceedings.” Those can be matters that fall solely under the House’s jurisdiction — like impeachment and initiating spending bills — and making sure that the record of debates is accurate. They also include allegations of impropriety, most often demanding that the Ethics Committee look into allegations against a member.
Looking back at the privileged resolutions filed in the last 20 years, the party in the minority tends to file many more of them. This makes sense, since the main perk of being in the majority is controlling the speakership and with it the power to set the legislative agenda. Invoking privilege thus becomes a way to get around majority control — and since the clock starts as soon as these resolutions are introduced and accepted as legitimately privileged, they can’t be ignored or put on the back burner.
The first major spike in their use came in the early 1990s, right as future Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., began using accusations of ethical lapses in the House to lay the groundwork for a GOP takeover. (Apparently there was a huge scandal with members overdrawing their accounts at the House bank, which is also a thing that exists. Who knew?) From there, use of privileged resolutions has ebbed and flowed, but generally they tend to be tabled, or killed, as the majority would rather not vote directly on whatever issue is being raised.
But we’ve seen a distinct escalation over the years in how privileged resolutions are used. Recent resolutions are increasingly targeting members directly for some form of discipline outside the Ethics Committee process, including condemnation, expressing the disapproval of the House or (as with Tlaib) outright censure, which is one step below expulsion. They include the two attempts this year to expel Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., one filed by a Democrat and the other by a group of New York Republicans. We’ve also seen a handful of privileged resolutions that have featured articles of impeachment, including those against Trump early in his term.
What makes this year’s run of privileged resolutions truly stand out, though, is that almost all of them have come from Republicans, often, notably, in defiance of their own leadership. Except for the Santos expulsion attempt, all of the GOP-led drafts have been about “owning the libs,” showboating for the Republican base or both. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., threw the House into chaos for weeks when he forced the House to vote on his resolution to boot Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from the speakership. The same could be said of the articles of impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, which Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has teed up for a vote this week.
In effect, the surge in privileged resolutions from the GOP is yet another reflection of divisions within the caucus and the lack of control Republican leadership has over some of its more headstrong members. As of Monday, Congress has only five days before a short-term funding bill expires, shutting down the federal government. But rather than focus on that looming disaster, the far right will put the spotlight back where it would much rather have it — squarely on it.