Punishing legislators is a delicate matter. Since Congress is the branch of government that most directly represents the interests of local people, removing a member is nothing to take lightly. The founding fathers did provide Congress with the power of expulsion, or removal from office, of any representative or senator the collective membership deems unworthy. Congress also assumed the right to censure, or publicly condemn, politicians for actions unbecoming their position of authority. Additionally, Congress may choose to impeach offenders, a procedure that can end with expulsion from office.
Expulsion is the ultimate penalty imposed by Congress on wayward members. Once expelled, the politician losses all privileges of his previous position. Congress reserves this punishment for those involved in high crimes, such as serious felony convictions or treason. The majority of cases originated in the Civil War era for lawmakers claiming allegiance to the Confederacy that waged war against the United States.
Censure refers to a punishment short of removal from office. The House of Representatives usually forces the guilty member to stand before the Speaker of the House, listen to a reading of the charges and face public condemnation. On some occasions, the member may offer a defense. The Senate reads the charges publicly but allows the accused to declare their innocence. In all instances, the respective Congressional body votes on the validity of the censure charges. A legislator found guilty, by a majority vote, must relinquish any committee chair positions they hold and, in most cases, loses to a challenger in the subsequent election cycle.
Authority to Discipline Members
The United States Constitution provides Congress with the express authority to discipline its members in Article 1, Section 5, and, theoretically, through the impeachment provisions of Article 1, Sections 2 and 3. Article 1, Section 5, allows both the House of Representatives and the Senate to expel any of their respective members by a vote of agreement by two-thirds of the body. There is no guidance offered as to what constitutes grounds for expulsion. The founding fathers left the decision to decide what actions warrant disciplinary proceedings to each sitting Congress. There is no mention of censure in the Constitution, though Article 1, Section 5, as stated, allows Congress to decide how to discipline its members.
Expulsion by Impeachment
Besides an actual vote for expulsion, Congress can also remove a member through impeachment proceedings, as listed in Article 1, Sections 2 and 3, of the Constitution. The House of Representatives decides whether a politician deserves impeachment. If the House of Representatives votes for impeachment, then the Senate votes for conviction or acquittal.
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