Recently, Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to censure Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA). The House has to vote on whether to censure a member, and in this case the vote fell short, with the Democrats voting against it, and the motion was not carried through. Republican members felt Schiff should receive some kind of rebuke for exaggerating the content of the telephone conversation between the Ukraine president and Donald Trump. What does it mean to censure a member of congress or the president of the United States?
It’s a Matter of Honor
The House of Representatives faced a problem figuring out how to reprimand a member of Congress or even the Commander in Chief, especially if the official’s actions were not a serious enough violation to warrant such extreme measures as expulsion from office. At a time when a man’s honor was all-important, it was an effective form of punishment to publicly censure or “shame” him. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, men used to fight duels with guns and swords if they felt their honor had been questioned or insulted, so bringing public dishonor by censuring was a valuable disciplinary tool.
When a member is subjected to the punishment of censure, he or she is forced to stand in the well of the House (known as “the bar of the House” during the 19th century) while the Speaker or a presiding officer reads aloud the “crimes.” This form of public rebuke is an embarrassing blight on the person’s honor and integrity, and a shaming in front of peers and constituents.
In 1798, the House considered using censure to punish Matthew Lyon of Vermont and Roger Griswold of Connecticut for their breaches of decorum. Lyon had spat on Griswold during an argument, and Griswold retaliated by caning the other man at his desk. However, both men promised to “keep the peace” and the matter was dropped.
William Stanbery of Ohio insulted Speaker Andrew Stevenson of Virginia in 1832, and this became the first case where the House agreed to censure one of its own.
In 1856, Laurence Keitt assisted fellow South Carolinian Preston Books as he assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane on the Senate floor. The House tried to expel Brooks but did not reach the two-thirds vote necessary to do so. The two decided to resign their offices rather than be censured and later won special elections to fill their own vacancies.
In 1866, Lovell Rousseau of Kentucky received the punishment of censure for caning Josiah Grinnell of Iowa. The two exchanged insults about their military service in the Civil War. Rousseau also resigned his seat after being censured, and was also re-elected.
Men are no longer challenging each other duel at dawn, and it’s unlikely we’ll see any House members caning each other during sessions, but the censure punishment is still viable for acts seen as dishonest or disloyal. Schiff’s was the most recent case, but other officials over the years have either been censured or recommended for such disciplinary action.
A resolution to reprimand Lincoln was introduced on May 11, 1864, by Senator Garret Davis of Kentucky (Unionist Party). He claimed the president had allowed two generals to return to military service after they won an election to the House, saying the act was “in derogation of the Constitution of the United States, and not within the power of the President and secretary of War, or either of them, to make.” A change was made to the Constitution and the censure was not pressed.
Nixon had a few instances where the Senate sought censure resolutions, one for conduct during the Vietnam War, and the others relating to the Watergate scandal. He resigned on August 9, 1974, one day after the last censure resolution was submitted.
Clinton received several reprimands or suggested disciplinary actions, mainly related to giving false testimony to a grand jury over his inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Like Clinton, there were several censure resolutions submitted against Obama. One stated that it was “for having willfully disregarded the legislative powers of the duly elected Congress provided by the Constitution of the United States through his executive actions to deprive American citizens of their constitutionally mandated right to bear arms under the Second Amendment.”
Twice, a censure resolution has been submitted against Trump, but neither moved for further action. The first condemned the president over his comments about a 2017 neo-Nazi rally by the group Unite the Right, which turned violent and resulted in the death of someone who had turned up to protest the rally. The second motion to censure argued the president’s comments regarding countries such as Haiti and El Salvador were “hateful, discriminatory, and racist.”