The power to expel a House or Senate member for misconduct is a weapon of last resort for members of Congress.
Congressional historians and political science professors said yesterday’s House decision to expel Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., nine-term Ohio Democrat, was a rare occurrence and one that is not taken lightly.
“It’s rare, exceedingly rare,” said James A. Thurber, a government professor at American University and director of the university’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “It has occurred before, but this case is unique in the institution because Mr. Traficant is not only a maverick, he’s a wacko maverick.”
Traficant last night became just the second House member since the Civil War to be kicked out of office, the fifth in history and the first in nearly a generation.
The House backed the expulsion overwhelmingly, on a 420-to-1 vote, citing Traficant’s April conviction in federal court for bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. The House ethics committee formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct found him guilty of nine of 10 rules violations earlier this month.
In its 213-year history, the House had used the expulsion power only four times, although serious efforts to remove members were made in more than two dozen other cases. Twenty-two House members have been censured and eight reprimanded since 1789.
The last House member expelled before Traficant was Rep. Michael J. Myers, Pennsylvania Democrat, who was removed after a 1980 conviction for taking bribes from undercover FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks in what became known as the “Abscam” probe.
Expulsion is the harshest penalty a House or Senate ethics committee can recommend, followed by censure, reprimand or fines. Expulsion requires the approval of two-thirds of the defendant’s legislative body.
Three of the other four House expulsions before last night occurred in 1861, when the House unseated members accused of supporting the Confederacy at the outset of the Civil War.
The Senate has expelled 15 of its members since 1789. Of that number, 14 were charged with supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. The fifteenth was Sen. William Blount of Tennessee, expelled in 1797 for treason. A total of nine senators were reprimanded or censured in 213 years.
Censure is a less severe form of discipline used by both houses of Congress against its members. It does not remove a senator or representative from office; however, it is a formal condemnation of behavior. It requires only a majority vote. A reprimand is a method to convey displeasure of someone’s actions, and, like a censure, has no legal consequence.
The list of expelled House and Senate members is short because many elected officials have chosen to resign when facing expulsion.
Sen. Robert W. Packwood, Oregon Republican, resigned in 1995 after the Senate Select Committee on Ethics recommended that he be expelled for sexual misconduct and abuse of power. House Speaker Jim Wright, Texas Democrat, resigned in 1989 after he was accused of financial misconduct, including skirting House limits on outside income.
Like Traficant, Mr. Myers chose to fight his charges in the Abscam case. Abscam short for “Arab scam” was an FBI sting operation that resulted in several members of Congress being convicted of wrongdoing.
Mr. Myers was one of five seen on videotape accepting cash or stock from agents dressed in Arabic robes. Some resigned and some were defeated for re-election. Mr. Myers chose to fight it out before the House ethics committee. In the end, the House voted 376-30 to expel him.
The last time the House ethics panel urged the expulsion of a member was in 1988, when it recommended that Rep. Mario Biaggi, New York Democrat, be removed. Mr. Biaggi resigned before the House vote.
House and Senate members also can “exclude” those found not to meet constitutional standards for House or Senate membership. Since the first exclusion case in 1789, 10 persons have been denied seats after winning election in House districts.
The story is based in part on wire service reports.