Congress Bans Confederate Flags From National Cemeteries

The debate over the Confederate flag has taken another turn, as the U.S. Congress has taken steps to limit the flag from being displayed at national cemeteries.

On Thursday, Congress passed a proposal which would prohibit federal taxpayer funds from being used to fly the Confederate battle flag at cemeteries operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The proposal came via an amendment to a VA spending bill from Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA), who stated that "to continue to allow national policy condoning the display of the Confederate battle flag on federal property would be wrong and disrespectful to our past."

While some news sources have stated that the amendment outright bans the flag at cemeteries and would even block descendants from flying the flag at any veteran grave, this is incorrect. Citizens are still allowed to leave small Confederate flags at their ancestor's graves.

The amendment was passed Thursday by a 265-159 vote. Eighty-four Republicans voted in favor of the amendment, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), while 158 Republicans opposed it. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) did not vote on the bill due to his official capacity, but he did indicate a preference for removing the Confederate flag from Capitol grounds last year.

The one Democrat who opposed the amendment, Sanford Bishop (D-GA), is a moderate and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

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The passing of the amendment is a significant accomplishment for representatives who wanted to remove the Confederate flag. Representative Huffman introduced a similar amendment as part of an appropriation bill last year, but the amendment derailed the appropriations process over a furious debate about the nature of the Confederate flag. Southern Republicans indicated their opposition to the amendment, and the entire spending bill was eventually dropped.

This time, the amendment passed without any setbacks. While Representative Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) tried to offer an amendment to modify Huffman's proposal, he withdrew after discussions with other Republicans.

Top Republicans like Paul Ryan indicated that their lack of opposition to the amendment is because they are determined to ensure that proper spending bills get passed. As new rules implemented by the Republican-controlled House in 2011 can offer an unlimited number of amendments during individual appropriations bills, this can give minority congressmen a chance to delay legislation in order to get pet amendments passed.

But while top Republicans appeared to be in favor of the amendment and no one spoke out against it on the House floor, some Republicans were vehemently opposed. Representative Lynn Westmoreland's (R-GA) legislative director sent an e-mail comparing the amendment to ISIS's efforts to destroy non-Islamic history.

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The director's e-mail stated, "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." Westmoreland stated that the legislative director has been disciplined for the e-mail.

Discussion over the Confederate flag as well as other memorials to the Confederacy and their leaders has grown since a white supremacist killed nine people at a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. In July 2015, the Atlanta branch of the NAACP called for the removal of the famous Stone Mountain carving. The 825-foot carving, the largest high-relief sculpture in the world, depicts Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee.

In addition, Congress rejected an amendment in April which would have taken the Confederate flag down from the Citadel, a prominent military college in South Carolina. Debate over the Citadel's flag has also taken place within the South Carolina state legislature, and votes both in Congress and Charleston have been along party lines with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing such measures.

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