House Approves Democrat Proposal to Limit Confederate Flag at VA Cemetaries

In May, the House approved a Democratic proposal on Thursday to limit the display of the Confederate flag in national cemeteries.

The amendment to a spending bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and military construction projects passed 265-159. A total of 158 Republicans opposed the amendment from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), while 84 Republicans joined all but one Democrat in supporting it.

Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), a centrist who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was the only Democrat to vote against the amendment. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) voted “present.”

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) expressed support for allowing the vote despite opposition from a majority of his conference.

“Last year it stopped the appropriations process in its tracks,” he told reporters at a Capitol 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. And I think people are acknowledging this — this is the kind of conversation we’ve had all along with our members, which is tough votes happen in open rules.

“People have to get used to that fact. That’s the way regular order works,” he added. “People realize the last thing we should do is derail our own appropriations process.”

The amendment to a spending bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and military construction projects passed 265-159. A total of 158 Republicans opposed the amendment from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), while 84 Republicans joined all but one Democrat in supporting it.

Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), a centrist who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was the only Democrat to vote against the amendment. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) voted “present.”

Shortly after midnight on Thursday, Huffman offered his amendment to prohibit the large-scale display of the Confederate flag in cemeteries run by the VA, such as flying the banner over mass graves. It would, however, still allow families to place small Confederate flags on individual graves on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day.

“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 asked while unveiling his amendment.

GOP lawmakers, primarily from Southern states, learned about the amendment the next day after it had it already passed. The vote count for the underlying Interior Department spending bill subsequently became shaky as those Republicans demanded the amendment be stripped from the legislation.

House GOP leaders ultimately decided to scrap the bill altogether rather than stage a vote to protect flying the Confederate flag on the same day that the South Carolina House voted to remove the banner from its state Capitol grounds. They further decided to stop bringing appropriations bills to the floor entirely since Democrats threatened to continue offering amendments regarding the Confederate flag.

confederateflag_sccemetery_062615gettyRegardless, in August, the Department of Veterans Affairs has  decided to ban the large-scale display of the Confederate flag in cemeteries overseen by the agency, following a House vote to do so earlier this year.

In a letter to Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) this month, the VA said it will no longer allow the Confederate flag to fly on any flagpole in national cemeteries. However, groups will still be permitted to adorn individual graves with small Confederate flags on two days of the year: Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day.

The VA said that after a year-long review of its policies surrounding the flag’s display in its cemeteries, it would change them in accordance with an amendment authored by Huffman that the House adopted in May. “We are aware of the concerns of those who wish to see Confederate flags removed from public venues because they are perceived by many as a symbol of racial intolerance. We are also aware that the national cemeteries originated during the Civil War and that they are the final resting places of those who served on both sides of that conflict and, as such, flags of the Confederacy are also viewed by some merely as historical symbols,” the VA’s Interim Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, Ronald Walters, wrote in a letter to Huffman.

While Huffman’s amendment to a VA spending bill passed on a bipartisan vote, a majority of House Republicans voted against the measure. A total of 84 Republicans voted with all but one Democrat in favor of Huffman’s proposal, while 158 opposed it. The provision was ultimately left out of the final bicameral compromise VA appropriations legislation.

Its exclusion from the final bill led Huffman and other House Democrats to urge the VA to change the policy regarding Confederate flag displays on its own in the absence of policy enacted by Congress.

“While racist individuals and groups continue to embrace the Confederate battle flag, it has never been more clear that this anachronistic symbol of hatred, slavery, and insurrection should not be promoted or gratuitously displayed on federal property,” Huffman said in a statement on Tuesday. “That’s why I am so grateful that the Department of Veterans Affairs responded to our letter and to public concerns and decided to prohibit the large-scale display of Confederate flags on our national veterans cemeteries.”

Fortunately, the Veterans Affairs office did respond to Representative Huffman (a descendant of Union veterans) with the following letter indicating that law requires them to respect the wishes of the families, and that they would not interfere with the placement of symbols, religious or other, placed on graves or used in ceremonies. So while it certainly isn’t a “win” for the Southern Heritage groups, it is at least, a sign of hope. Read the letter in its entirety below.

8.12.16 Walter. Letter from Veterans Affairs Reg. Conf. Flag Displays
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