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In Modern Times, Congress is Reluctant to Punish its Own

Historically, Talk of 'Draining the Swamp' Rings Hollow

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In Modern Times, Congress is Reluctant to Punish its Own

US Rep. Charles Rangel charged with ethics violations

Chip Sodomdevilla/Getty Images
Updated June 13, 2014

Back-to-back charges against two veteran members of Congress in the summer of 2010 cast an unflattering light on the Washington establishment and its historic inability to mete out justice among members who stray beyond ethical boundaries they helped to draw.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct charged U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a Democrat from New York, with 13 violations in late July, including failing to pay taxes on rental income he received from a Dominican villa.

The Office of Congressional Ethics charged U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, with allegedly using her office to provide assistance to a bank in which her husband owned stock to ask for federal bailout money.

The potential for highly publicized trials in both cases raised the question: How often has Congress expelled one its own?

The answer is: Not very.

Types of Punishment

There are several major types of punishment members of Congress can face:

  • Expulsion: The most serious of penalties is provided for in Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that "each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member." Such moves are considered matters of self-protection of the integrity of the institution.

  • Censure: A less severe form of discipline, censure does not remove congressmen or senators from office. Instead, it is a formal statement of disapproval that can have a powerful psychological effect on a member and his relationships. The House, for example, requires members being censured to stand at the "well" of the chamber to receive a verbal rebuke and reading of the censure resolution by the Speaker.

  • Reprimand: Used by the House, a reprimand is considered a lesser level of disapproval of the conduct of a member than that of a "censure," and is thus a less severe rebuke by the institution. A resolution of reprimand, unlike a censure, is adopted by a vote of the House with the member "standing in his place," according to House rules.

  • Suspension: Suspensions involve a prohibition on a member of the House from voting on or working on legislative or representational matters for a particular time. But according to congressional records, the House has in recent years questioned its authority to disqualify or mandatorily suspend a member.

History of House Expulsions

Only five members have been expelled in the history of the House, and the most recent was U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. of Ohio in July of 2002.

The House expelled Traficant after he was convicted of receiving favors, gifts and money in return for performing official acts on behalf of the donors, as well as getting salary kickbacks from staff.

The only other House member to be expelled in modern history is U.S. Rep. Michael J. Myers of Pennsylvania.

Myers was expelled in October of 1980 following a bribery conviction for accepting money in return for promise to use influence in immigration matters in the so-called ABSCAM "sting operation" run by the FBI.

The remaining three members were expelled for disloyalty to the union by taking up arms for the Confederacy against the United States in the Civil War.

History of Senate Expulsions

Since 1789, the Senate has expelled only 15 of its members - and 14 of them had been charged with support of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The only other U.S. senator to be kicked out of the chamber was William Blount of Tennessee in 1797 for anti-Spanish conspiracy and treason.

In several other cases, the Senate considered expulsion proceedings but either found the member not guilty or failed to act before the member left office. In those cases, corruption was the primary cause of complaint, according to Senate records.

For example, U.S. Sen. Robert W. Packwood of Oregon was charged with the Senate ethics committee with Sexual misconduct and abuse of power in 1995.

The Committee on Ethics recommended that Packwood be expelled for abuse of his power as a senator "by repeatedly committing sexual misconduct" and "by engaging in a deliberate ... plan to enhance his personal financial position" by seeking favors "from persons who had a particular interest in legislation or issues" that he could influence.

Packwood resigned, however, before the Senate could expel him.

And in 1982, U.S. Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. of New Jersey was charged by the Senate ethics committee with "ethically repugnant" conduct in the ABSCAM scandal, for which he was convicted of conspiracy, bribery, and conflict of interest.

He, too, resigned before the Senate could act on his punishment.

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