House votes to ban Confederate flag at veterans' cemeteries

A Confederate battle flag flies at the grave of L.S. Axson, a soldier in the Confederate States Army in the U.S. Civil War © Brian Snyder
The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved an amendment banning the display of Confederate flags at cemeteries run by the Veterans Administration. The ban was proposed by a California Democrat who called the flag “a hateful symbol.”

Representative Jared Huffman, from California’s North Coast district, put the amendment forward shortly after midnight on Thursday, in the debate over appropriations for military construction and VA programs.

“Over 150 years ago, slavery was abolished. Why, in the year 2016, are we still condoning displays of this hateful symbol on our sacred national cemeteries?” Huffman argued on the House floor.

The House Republican leadership – including Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) – voted in favor of the amendment, according to Politico, though many Republican lawmakers were opposed. It passed with a vote of 265-159.

The amendment prohibits flying the Confederate battle flag from flag poles at cemeteries operated by the VA. Families of the buried veterans can still place small Confederate flags on individual graves on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day. Cemeteries operated by states, the Department of the Army or the Department of the Interior are not affected by the ban.

Earlier in the evening, lawmakers narrowly turned down a proposed amendment that have would banned the flag’s display at The Citadel, a historic military academy in Charleston, South Carolina.

Huffman first made the proposal in July last year, shortly after the murder of nine black parishioners at Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church prompted a crusade of Confederate flag bans around the country. The vote would have taken place on the same day the South Carolina House voted to remove the flag from the state Capitol grounds. To block the vote, the GOP House leadership at the time pulled the entire appropriations bill.

Ryan defended his decision to allow the vote this time, despite the opposition from the majority of Republicans.

“Last year it stopped the appropriations process in its tracks,” he told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference after the vote. “What changed is we have to get through these things, and if we're going to have open rules and appropriations, which we have, which is regular order, people are going to have to take tough votes.”

"People have to get used to that fact,” Ryan added.

One senior staffer compared Huffman’s amendment to Islamic State’s destruction of cultural heritage in territories occupied by the terror group (formerly known as ISIS/ISIL).

“You know who else supports destroying history so that they can advance their own agenda? ISIL. Don’t be like ISIL. I urge you to vote NO,” Pete Sanborn, legislative director for Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland, wrote in a memo obtained by The Hill.

Westmoreland quickly distanced himself from the remarks.

“That type of unprofessional language should not have been used and appropriate disciplinary measures against the staffer have been taken to ensure this does not happen again,” spokeswoman Leigh Claffey said.

Last month, the House Administration Committee decided to remove all state flags from the subway connecting the Capitol and the Rayburn House Office Building, replacing them with state commemorative coins. The decision came after multiple procedural votes forced by Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) to take down the banner of Mississippi, the only state that has kept Confederate imagery on its flag.