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Updated September 08, 2010In Federalist 51, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton warned the people that since the leaders of their proposed new government would be fallible human beings, mistakes would be made.
"If men were angels, no government would be necessary," they wrote. Recognizing the inherent moral paradox posed by a society in which mere mortals govern mere mortals, Hamilton and Madison went on to write, "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
The solution seems so simple. Just vote the rascals out. "A dependence on the people [through voting] is, no doubt, the primary control on the government;" wrote Hamilton and Madison, who also knew the public could and would be deceived by some of the very people they had entrusted with their votes. Certain that some forms of internal government controls would be needed, they also wrote, "experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."
What 'Auxiliary Precautions' Do We Have?
By "auxiliary precautions," the Founders meant Constitutional processes by which the government could punish, even remove from office, elected officials on its own initiative, separate from the voice of the people.
Impeachment is perhaps the best known auxiliary precaution, but while the Constitution rather vaguely limits the impeachment process to "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States," civil officials are typically recognized as officials serving under the executive and judicial branches of government only.
Members of Congress have been considered exempt from impeachment since 1797, when Sen. Sen. William Blount of Tennessee was impeached by the House. Blount was acquitted by the Senate on the ground that members of Congress are not subject to impeachment. Blount was later expelled by the Senate, but ever since, all impeachments have been limited to federal judges, presidents and one cabinet agency secretary. (Secretary of War William Belknap in 1876, for accepting bribes. He was acquitted by the Senate, but later resigned.)
The Constitution authorizes each House of Congress to punish its members for disorderly behavior and, with the concurrence of two thirds, to expel a Member. (U.S. Constitution art. I, sec. 5) Precedents show that the House may also punish a member by censure, reprimand, condemnation, reduction of seniority, or fine.
Reprimand and condemnation usually result in good tongue-lashings delivered in public session through speeches made by other members. "Censure," while not clearly defined, is a more formal and serious level of reprimand, often expressed in written form or by adoption of a resolution. Censure is considered just one step below expulsion. Reduction in seniority typically involves stripping the member of committee assignments.
Who Enforces the 'Auxiliary Precautions?'
The ethical standards for members of the House are set down in the House Ethics Manual, and are interpreted and enforced by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.
The first rule of the House Code of Ethics states, "A Member, officer, or employee of the House of Representatives shall conduct himself at all times in a manner which shall reflect creditably on the House of Representatives."
Behavior of Senators is overseen by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics as prescribed in the Senate Ethics Manual.
How Often Does Congress Punish Its Own?
According to Enforcement of Ethical Standards in Congress, "Actual disciplinary actions by the full Senate or House have, in fact, been relatively rare. The Senate has adopted censure motions only eight times, censuring nine Senators, in its history, and has not expelled a Member of the Senate since the Civil War. The House has censured 22 Members, and 'reprimanded' seven others, while expelling only four of its Members in its history, three during the Civil War for disloyalty to the Union, and the most recent expulsion in 1980 after conviction for bribery in congressional office."
Not too bad a record for a government over 200 years old and not run by angels.