Ga. congressman’s votes emblematic of Washington dysfunction

Expert: Opposition to building names, historical designations is an ‘innovation’ from the House fringe
Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., leaves the House Republican Conference caucus meeting at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., leaves the House Republican Conference caucus meeting at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Honoring historical places, handing out medals and naming federal buildings for notable Americans have been such routine functions of Congress that they typically are immune from widening partisan divide in the legislative branch — until now.

A small group of ultra-conservative House Republicans have opened up a new front in Congress’s bitter culture wars by casting opposition votes when those being honored have links to hot-button issues they oppose, a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.

In the past year, the coalition has voted against honoring trailblazing Black and female judges, sometimes citing objections to a legal opinion or philosophy. They have voted against recognizing a Texas school that taught Mexican-American children in an era of segregation. And some have voted against passing an anti-lynching bill named for a victim of an infamous civil rights era slaying.

One of the most aggressive practitioners of this tactic is first-term Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde of Athens. In March, he led a surprise revolt that sunk the naming of the federal courthouse in Tallahassee, Fla., to honor Judge Joseph Hatchett, the state’s first Black supreme court justice and later the first Black jurist to be named to a federal appeals court in the Deep South.

Clyde’s objection centered around a decision Hatchett, who died last year, made in 1999 as chief judge of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals finding student-led prayer at high school graduation ceremonies unconstitutional because students were compelled to attend regardless of their religious preference. Clyde’s campaign to defeat the renaming sent House Republicans running to push the “no” button, including Republicans from Florida who had co-sponsored the bill.

The defeat of the bill brought immediate condemnation from Democratic lawmakers and specific criticism aimed at Clyde, who represents the state’s 9th District in northeast Georgia.

Some critics have said these votes are racially motivated opposition to honoring Blacks or other minorities. Rep. Al Lawson, the Tallahassee Democrat who co-sponsored the Hatchett resolution in the House, pointed Clyde out not only for leading the opposition to the renaming but for other votes that put the Athens gun dealer on the congressional periphery.

“Clyde is also one of the three members who opposed the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act,” Lawson said.

In a statement after the Hatchett vote, Clyde denied that race factored into his decision and described the judge as a “good man who served his country honorably,” but he said the judge’s decision 23 years earlier meant he could not support the renaming.

“This serves as a prominent example of why the House Freedom Caucus regularly requests recorded votes on the House floor,” he said.

Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., seen here leaving the Capitol Hill Club in Washington last month, has staked out hard positions on who — or what — deserves to be honored by Congress, often voting against his own party’s position. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Credit: CQ Roll Call via AP

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Credit: CQ Roll Call via AP

A disruptive history

University of Georgia political science professor Michael Lynch said the use of such routine measures by Clyde and a handful of others to make political points is “an innovation” as members on the fringes of their own parties look for ways to express their displeasure.

“Building renamings are not usually hot-button issues,” he said. “We see people, a lot of the time on the far left or far right, kind of coming up with new ways to vote and show more fissures in each party.”

Clyde, who took office in January 2021, declined multiple interview requests by the AJC for this story. The newspaper’s review of Clyde’s votes on similar measures show he has staked out hard positions on who — or what — deserves to be honored by Congress, often voting against his own party’s position. Often those “nay” votes came at the expense of honoring racial or ethnic minorities.

The point of these votes is to be disruptive to the process, while also allowing the member to burnish their image as an outsider, according to experts and congressional observers. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome, did something similar by making repeated motions to adjourn the House, forcing members of both parties to rush from committee hearings for a procedural vote.

Clyde has caused headaches in the House in other ways during his short tenure. He’s been fined thousands of dollars for refusing to wear a mask on the House floor during the pandemic and bypassing House security screenings. And he was roundly rebuked for referring to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol as resembling a “normal tourist visit.”

The Hatchett vote attracted national headlines because it torpedoed the bill. But Clyde is more often on the losing end of these votes with many in his own party joining Democrats to pass the legislation.

“Building renamings are not usually hot-button issues. We see people, a lot of the time on the far left or far right, kind of coming up with new ways to vote and show more fissures in each party."

- Michael Lynch, University of Georgia political science professor

On Dec. 9, Clyde and seven other Republicans voted against naming the Blackwell School in Marfa, Texas, a national historic site. For decades, the site was a segregated school where the local district sent Mexican-American children until integration in 1965. It now is a community center. The measure passed with 417 House members in support, including 203 Republicans.

On March 16, Clyde and a couple dozen other Republicans voted against the El Paso Community Healing Garden National Memorial, which will commemorate the lives of 23 people killed in an Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting by a white supremacist in what has been called the deadliest anti-Latino hate crime in U.S. history. Clyde was joined by four other House Republicans from Georgia — Reps. Rick Allen, Drew Ferguson, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jody Hice — in voting against the resolution, which expressly stated it cost no federal money and would not be part of the National Park Service. The resolution passed 403-25.

‘Ticking everybody off’

After Clyde led the revolt against the the Tallahassee courthouse renaming, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., told the New York Times the snubbing left her with the conclusion that House Republicans “are not willing to name a courthouse after a Black person.”

But Clyde at times has voted to recognize Black people and other minorities.

He voted in favor of awarding congressional gold medals to an all-Black unit of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and Willie O’Ree, the first Black player in the National Hockey League. Clyde also voted in favor of a resolution condemning bomb threats against historically Black schools.

U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, a Republican who fell out of favor with his party after criticizing President Donald Trump, puts Clyde in the group of Republican lawmakers who disrupt the work of Congress. They slow things down by requesting floor votes on non-controversial bills and call for procedural votes that are doomed to fail and their behavior makes them less effective, he said.

Kinzinger said there are conservatives and party insiders who share his frustration and complain privately but publicly have said nothing, either because they fear public attacks or a loss of campaign donations.

“I’ll tell you people are angry about it,” he said. “And what these members are doing is, well, frankly, they’re just ticking everybody off.”

Some of the other ultraconservative members of the House who have joined Clyde on these votes, like Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, are themselves sometimes lone “no” votes on seemingly noncontroversial issues. Earlier this month, Massie was the sole member of the House to vote against a resolution condemning rising antisemitism, explaining in a tweet “government can’t legislate thought.” Clyde voted in favor of the resolution.

“I'll tell you people are angry about it. And what these members are doing is, well, frankly, they're just ticking everybody off."

- U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL)

Lynch, the UGA political scientist, said votes against these kind of measures are “bizarre” from a historical perspective.

“Usually, on procedural votes you just do what your party asks, and that’s the end of it,” he said. But he said in a Congress paralyzed by partisanship there just aren’t a lot of substantive votes, so fringe players like Clyde are taking the opportunity to express their political positions in new ways.

In fact, he said there are some examples in the current Congress where far-right members like Clyde and Greene are joined by members of “the Squad,” the coterie of progressive Democrats that includes New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

“You get all these votes where AOC is voting with Andrew Clyde because they’re just like, ‘I vote no, unless the bill is perfect,” he said.

Lynch said these disruptive tactics have cropped up in different forms through the history of Congress. They tend to provoke a response to restore order, he said.

Lynch said House leadership likely would respond with new rule inventions if protest votes like those cast by Clyde prove too troublesome to abide.

First-term U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde's gun store on the outskirts of Athens resembles a fortress.

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While it caused a stir, Clyde’s protest against honoring Judge Hatchett was a temporary setback.

The renaming of the courthouse was brought back before the House on May 18, this time in a manner that only required a majority vote for passage. Republicans stuck by their opposition; all but 10 voted against the measure.

During debate on the bill the day before the vote, Florida Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat, criticized her GOP colleagues for politicizing the legacy of a man she said was widely respected and praised after a long career in the state.

“We are better than this in this House of Representatives,” she said. “And it is time to honor this outstanding gentleman, Judge Joseph Woodrow Hatchett, for his life of integrity, fairness, and honor.”