Censures and Reprimands

How many ways can Congress punish its members?

The House Ethics Committee voted Thursday to recommend censure for disgraced Rep. Charles Rangel. If the full chamber agrees, Rangel would become just the 23rd representative ever to receive that punishment. The House might instead decide to reprimand him. Last year, Christopher Beam explained the difference between a censure and a reprimand. That column is reprinted below.

Rep. Joe Wilson and his wife

The House of Representatives passed a resolution Tuesday reprimanding Rep. Joe Wilson for shouting “You lie!” during President Obama’s address on health care. The resolution states that the House “disapproves of the behavior of the Representative from South Carolina.” Is that the only way Congress can punish its members?

No. Congress can choose from among three main forms of punishment: expulsion, censure, and reprimand. Expulsion is the harshest. The Constitution states that any member of the House or Senate can be expelled with a two-thirds majority from the relevant chamber. Expulsion usually occurs when a member commits an act of disloyalty to the U.S. government or a crime that involves abusing his position in Congress. The House has expelled five members in its history—three for joining the Confederacy during the Civil War, one in 1980 for a member’s role in the Abscam FBI sting operation, and one in 2002 for helping out donors in exchange for kickbacks. The Senate has expelled 15—14 for disloyalty during the Civil War, plus Sen. William Blount in 1797 for planning to help the British conquer the Spanish territory of West Florida. Both houses of Congress have considered expulsion in other instances, but the members resigned or retired before a vote took place. That’s why you don’t see South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks, who beat Sen. Charles Sumner with his cane in 1856, on the list—he stepped down before he could be expelled. (See a complete list of expulsions here.)

Censure, which requires a mere majority vote, is less severe. It’s just a formal resolution rebuking bad behavior with no concrete consequences, other than shame, of course—and likely defeat in the next election. (Only one senator has been re-elected after being censured: Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina, who assaulted another senator on the floor.) In the House, once the resolution is passed, the speaker will read it out loud to the member, who sits in “the well” on the House floor. In the Senate, the resolution is presented and voted on just like any other bill Congress metes out censure for, anything from “disorderly behavior” within its halls, such as using bad language, to misconduct outside its halls, like taking bribes. The most famous censure was that of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954, who was “condemned” for refusing to cooperate in an ethics investigation of his conduct. Other censure-worthy offenses have included leaking a treaty to the press (Sen. Benjamin Tappan, 1844), using “unparliamentary language” (Rep. William Bynum, 1890), and sexual misconduct with a congressional page (Reps. Dan Crane and Gerry Studds, 1983). * (See a complete list of censures here.)

Even less severe is a “reprimand.” Until recently, censure and reprimand were synonymous. In the Senate, they still are. But in the House, members issue a reprimand when the offense is not quite bad enough for a formal admonition from the speaker, but still bad enough to deserve mention of some kind. A “reprimand” usually takes the form of a simple majority vote, which then becomes part of the official record. One of the first “reprimands” ever issued was in 1976. Rep. Charles Wilson was censured for financial misconduct related to the scandal known as “Korea-gate,” while three other members were merely reprimanded, since they had less involvement.

Congress can always add smaller punishments on top of a censure or reprimand. A chamber will sometimes slap a member with a fine if his misdeeds involved misusing official dollars, or simply to cover the costs of an investigation. The member might also lose his or her seniority or committee posts. Suspending a member’s vote is often listed as a possible punishment in the House—and the speaker has once or twice prevented a member from voting for conflict-of-interest reasons. But Congress almost never uses that power, since it’s seen as murky constitutional territory.

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Explainer thanks the U.S. House of Representatives Office of History and Preservation and Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office.

Correction, Sept. 17, 2009: This article originally misspelled Gerry Studds’ name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)