The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

History exposes another motive for kicking key Democrats off committees

By removing Reps. Adam Schiff, Eric Swalwell and Ilhan Omar, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would remove obstacles to his agenda

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, left, Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Adam B. Schiff. (From left: photos by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post, Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post, Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

After a tumultuous start, House Republicans elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker of the House, approved the rules governing their chamber and passed their first wave of legislation. They also finally named members to committees — though committee assignments for both parties are not yet formalized.

And the normally mundane process of finalizing committee rosters will be anything but, because McCarthy has promised to keep former Intelligence Committee chair Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and fellow California Democrat Eric Swalwell off the committee, as well as to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the Foreign Affairs Committee. On Monday, the news broke that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) formally recommended the reappointment of Swalwell and Schiff to the Intelligence Committee and sources told Punchbowl News that Democrats would name Omar to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Yet McCarthy has indicated that he plans to override Democrats’ prerogative to choose their own members for each panel in revenge for the Democratic majority voting to remove Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) from their committees in 2021. Democrats argued the punishment was appropriate because Greene spread antisemitic falsehoods and Gosar shared a social media video that called for violence against President Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), among other transgressions.

McCarthy is justifying his move by calling Swalwell a “national security threat” due to his alleged ties to a Chinese intelligence operative and condemning Omar for what he described as “antisemitic and anti-American remarks.”

McCarthy’s use of the label “anti-American,” however, harks back to a similar move from a century ago — one that hints at ulterior motives behind his move.

At the height of the First “Red Scare” in 1920, the New York legislature expelled the entire five-man Socialist caucus from the state Assembly. New York Republicans claimed the decision was necessary to prevent “anti-American” rhetoric and values from undermining the state’s politics.

Yet in reality, they really wanted to prevent the spread of policies anathema to the conservative status quo. The move proved wildly successful, indicating the temptation for McCarthy and other legislative leaders to mimic it.

The 1920 New York legislative session opened normally, but it quickly devolved into one of the most undemocratic moments in American political history. The five-man Socialist caucus consisting of August Claessens, Samuel DeWitt, Samuel Orr, Charles Solomon and Louis Waldman, optimistically entered the Assembly chamber and took their oaths of office. They were completely unprepared for what was about to transpire.

Right away, the Socialists found themselves in front of Republican Speaker Thaddeus Sweet, who read off accusations about the Socialist Party’s “un-American” stance on World War I and the group’s unfitness to serve in the legislature. After a rushed vote, the Socialists’ seats were declared vacant, and they lost all privileges as elected officials until a committee determined their fitness for office.

And rather than a real inquiry, Republicans planned and conducted a glorified show trial. The committee investigating the expelled Socialists was stacked with hard-line Republicans loyal to the speaker. They cared little that politicians across the political spectrum wrote letters advocating for the Socialists to regain their seats. Gov. Alfred Smith (D) labeled the move a “legislative outrage.” Meanwhile, Charles Evans Hughes, the state’s former Republican governor, as well as the GOP’s 1916 presidential candidate and a former Supreme Court justice, rebuked his fellow Republicans in a public letter.

Yet committee Republicans persevered, determined to demonstrate how “un-American” the Socialists had been while in office. Immediately renouncing their claims might have made the Republican leadership look weak in the face of public pressure. More important, critical press coverage and opprobrium from other politicians was worth the opportunity to remove the Socialists from the statehouse because their caucus had become particularly adept at using the legislative process to thwart conservative goals and embarrass their opponents.

The Republican investigators specifically targeted Claessens who, in the previous legislative session, had successfully prevented passage of bills ranging from a ban on noncitizen teachers to a rule that only English could be used on signs during parades or demonstrations. Claessens vociferously opposed those bills — and he went further, directly calling out their authors as xenophobic and hostile to the thousands of immigrant New Yorkers.

As Republicans doggedly pressed forward, their tactics exposed that they were most concerned with removing political obstacles to their agenda. They deployed an ever expanding, loose definition of “un-American” as a weapon, pointing to Socialist bills from years prior that they charged exposed the party’s danger to society. This legislation covered a wide range of topics including opposition to larger police forces, the reduction of military funding during World War I, protections for striking workers, raising the working age for children and legalizing women’s access to contraception.

These proposals were radical in the sense that few other New York politicians were proposing them; however, arguing they were “un-American” was nothing more than a value judgment by Republicans who wanted to stifle such measures on ideological grounds.

But the weakness of the case — and the unfairness of the standard being applied — mattered little. That became clear when the Assembly voted on whether to reseat the Socialists. Fiery speeches boiled over with past grievances — and even demands for mob violence. Republican Assemblyman Louis Culliver announced, “[The Socialists] ought not just be expelled but taken out and shot.”

Similarly, Democrat Martin McCue, whom Claessens embarrassed for his English-only law a year earlier, declared, “These five men ought to be an example to the other traitors and violators of the law. They ought to be strung up to the nearest lamp post with their feet dangling in the air.”

The vote in favor of expulsion was overwhelming, though far from unanimous. Some Republicans from New York City bucked their party leadership because they had a working relationship with the Socialists on issues pertaining to the city.

Meanwhile, many Democrats opposed the Republican ploy for purely partisan reasons — the Socialists had allied with the Democratic caucus in previous sessions. Even so, some Democrats like McCue voted for expulsion because of past grievances, while other Democrats did so because they thought their party could swoop in and win the vacated seats during special elections.

In the end, the “un-American” argument provided political cover for members who wanted to eject the Socialists for personal reasons. And it enabled Republican leaders to purge potential obstacles to their agenda.

In 2023, Republicans appear to be resurrecting this playbook. Once again, they are attempting to diminish prominent voices on the left. Omar is a vocal member of “the Squad” as well as an immigrant of color, and raising the specter of anti-Americanism plays to stereotypes in an attempt to stifle her voice.

Kicking Schiff and Swalwell off the Intelligence Committee appears to have even less justification; the former chairman is a partisan warrior, loathed by the right, and McCarthy has claimed repeatedly, but falsely, that Schiff lied to the public — hardly an unusual sin in politics even if it were true. And a Washington Post fact check found no evidence of impropriety or wrongdoing by Swalwell. Instead, McCarthy’s justifications conjure up echoes of the New York Republicans in 1920.

Maybe the biggest lesson from that case, however, is that McCarthy’s gambit probably will pay off.

After the expulsions, the New York Socialist Party never regained the level of political power it had before 1920. Essentially, Republicans’ move — however undemocratic — worked.

They permanently removed an opponent from the political battlefield without facing any electoral repercussions. Their success indicates that Republicans might well consider it worth any negative coverage to remove Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee and prevent Schiff from remaining on the Intelligence Committee.

The GOP can simultaneously quash dissent and claim to be fighting against “anti-American” values. If the move pays dividends, this strategy may prove tempting, either to future congressional majorities or Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country.