What really happened in flag debate in Congress
National Park Service, House Dems say GOP change meshed with Obama policy
Several Democrats wanted tougher stance on flag than White House’s
House majority leader, Rep. John Lewis talk behind closed doors
In this photo combination, the Confederate battle flag is raised in front of the South Carolina State House in Columbia, S.C., on July 1, 2000, left, and the same flag is taken down on July 10, 2015, right, ending its presence on the Capitol grounds. The flag’s removal seemed unthinkable before the June 17 massacre of nine black parishioners at a Charleston church during a Bible study. Dylann Roof, a white man who was photographed with the Confederate flag, is charged in the shooting deaths, and authorities have called the killings a hate crime.
PAULA ILLINGWORTH, JOHN BAZEMORE AP
BY WILLIAM DOUGLAS
The head of the Democratic Party said they were among the darkest hours in the history of the House of Representatives. The White House said Republicans were strikingly eager to defend the Confederate flag.
Republicans said they were merely proposing to enforce existing policies about the sale and display of the flag in national cemeteries set by the Obama administration itself in the wake of the massacre at a Charleston, S.C., church.
The bottom line: The Republicans were correct that they were moving to maintain Obama policies.
But that’s only part of the story. Also true: House Democrats wanted to go farther than Obama and ban most Confederate flags from national cemeteries. And in the furor, they failed to note that Obama could have already done what the House Democrats want.
Here’s what happened.
On Tuesday, Democrats proposed three amendments to a bill financing the Interior Department. They would ban the sale of Confederate flags at vendors or the display or Confederate flags at gravesites in national cemeteries.
The House approved them by voice vote.
“The language of the amendments were clear,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., one of the authors. “Everybody knew what we were doing.”
He added that Democrats didn’t seek roll call votes on the amendments because it would have put some Republicans uncomfortably on the record and “we did expect that a few of them would probably vote against these amendments if there was a roll call.”
Less than 24 hours after the Democratic amendments passed, several Republican House members from Southern states complained to their party’s leadership about the recently passed amendments, according to several lawmakers.
“Congress cannot simply rewrite history and strip the Confederate flag from existence,” Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said in a statement. “Members of Congress from New York and California cannot wipe away 150 years of Southern history with sleight-of-hand tactics. I will fight to ensure that this language is not included in any bill signed into law.”
Late Wednesday night, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee for Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, introduced a one-paragraph amendment that didn’t specifically mention Confederate flags.
Instead, it stated that “none of the funds made available by this Act may be used to prohibit the display of the flag of the United States or the POW/MIA flag or the decoration of graves with flags in the National Park Service national cemeteries as provided in the National Park Service Director’s Order No. 61 or to contravene the National Park Service memorandum dates June 24, 2015 . . . with respect to sale items.”
That affirmed the Obama administration policies set in 2010 and updated last month after the Charleston shootings.
But in so doing, it also reversed Huffman’s amendments, which had been agreed to Tuesday.
The White House slammed the GOP amendment.
“When you hear me say that congressional Republicans have an agenda that is out of step with the vast majority of Americans, this record at least in part is what I’m referring to,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said, “The last 24 hours in the House of Representatives are some of the darkest I have witnessed as a member of Congress.”
But Calvert said all his amendment would do is codify current National Park Service policy regarding Confederate flags set by the Obama administration.
That policy prohibits the sale of items with Confederate flag imagery but allows the Confederate flags to be flown in “specific circumstances where the flags provide historical context, for instance to signify troop location or movement or as part of a historical re-enactment or living history program.”
Current policy allows visitors to place small Confederate flags at the graves of rebel soldiers buried in federal cemeteries on Confederate Memorial Days in Southern states that mark the day. The flags must be removed by the end of that day.
“The intent of the leadership amendment was to clear up any confusion and maintain the Obama administration’s policies with respect to those historical and educational exceptions,” Calvert said in a statement.
National Park Service officials and House Democrats involved in the flag debate agreed Friday that the Republican amendment would have continued the exemptions allowed by the administration.
“It would revert to the status quo,” said Huffman.
A Park Service official concurred that the amendment would have meant “a continuation” of current administration policy.
The White House declined to say why the administration, which changed the policy on its own in 2010 and again on June 24, is not changing it again to accommodate the requests from House Democrats.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pulled the Interior appropriations bill Thursday to avoid the flag vote and called for an “adult conversation” among members about what to do about issues involving Confederate flags and symbols.
On Friday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights-era icon, walked off the House floor together to a nearby room. A Republican aide shuttered the blinds to the room’s glass doors.
“We had a friendly conversation,” is all Lewis would say afterward.
William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas