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A formal, public reprimand for an infraction or violation.

From time to time deliberative bodies are forced to take action against members whose actions or behavior runs counter to the group's acceptable standards for individual behavior. In the U.S. Congress, that action can come in the form of censure. Censure is a formal and public condemnation of an individual's transgressions. It is stronger than a simple rebuke, but not as strong as expulsion. Members of Congress who have been censured are required to give up any committee chairs they hold, but they are not removed from their elected position. Not surprisingly, however, few censured politicians are re-elected.

While censure is not specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the right to adopt resolutions, and a resolution to invoke censure falls into this category. The first use of censure was actually directed not at a member of Congress but at a member of George Washington's cabinet. Alexander Hamilton, Washington's treasury secretary, was accused of mishandling two congressionally authorized loans. Congress voted a censure resolution against Hamilton. The vote fell short, but it established censure as a precedent. In general, each house of Congress is responsible for invoking censure against its own members; censure against other government officials is not common, and censure against the president is rarer still.

Because censure is not specifically mentioned as the accepted form of reprimand, many censure actions against members of Congress may be listed officially as rebuke, condemnation, or denouncement. The end result, however, is the same, and to all intents and purposes these are censure measures. At the same time, each censure case is different, and those delivering censure like to have enough leeway to tailor the level of severity. Still, the prospect of an open, public rebuke by one's peers is painful even for the most thick-skinned politician.

Noteworthy Censure Cases

Among the best known censure cases in Congress were the 1811 censure of Massachusetts senator Timothy Pickering for reading confidential documents in Senate sessions and the 1844 censure of Ohio senator Benjamin Tappan for releasing a confidential document to a major newspaper. Perhaps one of the more colorful censure motions was the 1902 censure of South Carolina's two senators, Benjamin R. Tillman and John L. McLaurin. On February 22, 1902, they began fighting in the Senate chamber. Both men were censured and suspended for six days (retroactively).

Probably the most infamous censure case was the condemnation of Senator joseph r. mccarthy (R-WI) in 1954. McCarthy took the national stage at the height of the anti-Communist movement following World War II. McCarthy spent several years making claims that known Communists had infiltrated the U.S. government, and although he never offered proof of even one claim, his crusade was popular and powerful. Many Americans from all walks of life saw their lives destroyed in the early 1950s by groundless accusations of communist sympathies. His power unchecked, McCarthy became even more relentless, and in 1954 he openly attacked members of the Eisenhower administration in televised hearings. His colleagues realized they had no choice but to act. A censure committee was formed, and McCarthy as much as accused its members of being Communists. The vote to condemn McCarthy passed 65 to 22 on December 2, 1954.

Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) was found guilty in 2002 of taking illegal gifts and cash payments from a businessman and not reporting them. The businessman got help from the senator in Lobbying the government. Although Torricelli denied the charges, his colleagues found the evidence compelling enough to "severely admonish" him. While not called a "censure," this reprimand clearly had the same effect. Torricelli, who was up for reelection, saw his popularity plunge in a matter of weeks, and on September 30, 2002, he withdrew from the race.

Presidential Censure

Congress rarely acts against the president with a formal reprimand. Andrew Jackson was the first president to be thus reprimanded, by the Senate in 1834, after he removed the secretary of the treasury (a responsibility that Congress believed rested with the legislature). Jackson was a Democrat, but the Senate was controlled by the rival Whig Party. Three years later, when the Democrats took control of the Senate, Jackson's censure was expunged from the records.

President John Tyler was reprimanded in 1842 by the House of Representatives, which accused him of abusing his powers. Apparently Tyler had promised representatives on several occasions that he would support certain bills, only to Veto them when they arrived at his desk. In 1848, President james k. polk was reprimanded by the House for starting the Mexican War without first obtaining Congressional approval. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of war, edwin stanton, were condemned by the Senate for allowing an elected member of the House to hold commissions in the Army. The Senate voted for the reprimand 24 to 12, but it was referred to a special committee and no further action was taken.

In 1998, during the Impeachment trial of President bill clinton, several members of Congress attempted to have him censured instead, believing that while his behavior warranted rebuke it did not merit a full impeachment. The move for censure failed, and Clinton was impeached.

Further readings

"Congressional Ethics: Historical Facts and Controversy." 1992. Congressional Quarterly. Washington, D.C.: CQ.

Thompson, Dennis F. 1995. Ethics in Congress: From Individual to Institutional Corruption. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.


Congress of the United States; Impeachment.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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