Clyburn’s flag fight: ‘I will not let this rest’

Congressional Democrats were unsuccessful in advancing an amendment to force the Citadel to remove the Confederate naval jack from Summerall Chapel.

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are snubbing Democratic pressure on The Citadel to take down the Confederate flag, but U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn isn’t giving up.

“I will not let this rest,” the South Carolina Democrat leading the effort said Thursday.

Clyburn’s comments came after the House Armed Services Committee voted against an amendment to the pending defense bill that would ban Reserve Officers’ Training Corps funding for any military university that displays the Confederate flag.

The only school known to fall into that category is The Citadel, where the Board of Visitors voted to remove the rebel flag last summer following the racially charged shooting of nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

But the Board of Visitors says it can’t actually take the Citadel’s Confederate flag down from the Summerall Chapel unless the S.C. Legislature makes changes to the so-called Heritage Act that prohibits it.

The committee’s top Democrat, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, acknowledged that the amendment he offered was designed to force South Carolina lawmakers to act.

“The flag still flies, South Carolina has no pressure to change it whatsoever and probably won’t,” said Smith, a Clyburn ally. “And that embarrassment continues to fly over The Citadel, where there are presumably African-American people attending. And I think we need something to force South Carolina to do the right thing.”

Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said Smith’s amendment put an undue burden on The Citadel. He essentially moved to amend the amendment, adding language to Smith’s original provision to exempt any university which has already voted to take down the flag, from having ROTC funds withheld, thereby nullifying the amendment’s purpose.

“Bottom line is, I don’t think it’s fair to punish those folks who are trying to do the right thing,” Thornberry said.

Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, the only South Carolinian on Armed Services, Thursday read a letter he received from The Citadel’s president, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, in opposition to Smith’s amendment.

“The Citadel prides itself on the core values of duty, honor and respect, and moving the (flag) to another location is consistent with those values,” Rosa wrote. “But the values also require the college to follow the law.”

Ultimately, the Armed Services Committee members voted on Thornberry’s alternative language that canceled out Smith’s original intent. All Democrats voted “no” and all Republican voted “yes” — except for one, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona, who sided with the minority party.

Outside the committee, South Carolina Republicans said no matter what national views are about the Confederate flag, what happens at The Citadel is up to the state, not the Congress.

“They could very easily move the Confederate flag to the museum, which is right next door to where it’s being housed now,” said Gov. Nikki Haley, who was on Capitol Hill on Thursday testifying against relocating Guantanamo Bay prisoners to the Navy brig in Hanahan. She said it was a Statehouse matter and that “I don’t think we need to go through a D.C. plan to do that.”

As for whether South Carolina lawmakers needed additional pressure, Haley demurred. “What I told the cadets is, if this was a concern, they needed to contact their legislators. They would need to open the Heritage Act just for that specific facility and handle that accordingly. Right now we haven’t seen any action,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., Haley’s predecessor in the Governor’s Mansion, agreed. “I think the United States Congress is ill-suited to guide and direct local municipalities, counties or state governments in contentious issues that they’re struggling with,” he said. “If one believes in federalism, Washington doesn’t need to be the sole arbiter of all disputes across this country.”

After his first defeat, Clyburn suggested he would bring the issue up again when the defense bill comes before the full House. He might also look to appropriations bills to force GOP colleagues to take politically uncomfortable votes.

“In the coming weeks and months,” he warned, “I plan to give House Republicans additional opportunities to do the right thing.”

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.