Censure in the United States
In the United States, a motion of censure is a congressional procedure for reprimanding the President of the United States, a member of Congress, or a judge. Unlike impeachment, in the United States censure has no explicit basis in the federal constitution. It derives from the formal condemnation of either congressional body of their own members. When censured, the member must give up any committee chairs they hold, but he or she does not lose his or her elected position.
Only one U.S. president has been censured by the United States Senate. In 1834, while under Whig control, the Senate censured Democratic President Andrew Jackson for withholding documents relating to his actions in defunding the Bank of the United States. As a partial result of public opposition to the censure itself, the Senate came under control of the Democratic Party in the next election cycle, and the censure was expunged in 1837.
As one historian has written:
During the last session of Congress under Jackson, Democrats tried to delete from their record the censure of their hero. The Whigs were just as eager to keep the censure as the Democrats were to get rid of it. The vote on censure was taken after thirteen hours of debate. Twenty-four senators voted to delete it; nineteen voted to retain it. The censure was ringed in black and officially deleted from the minutes.
In 1842, Whigs attempted to impeach President John Tyler following a long period of hostility with the president. When that action could not get through Congress, a select Senate committee dominated by Whigs censured Tyler instead.
In 1848, the United States House of Representatives voted to censure President James Polk, on the grounds that the Mexican-American War had been "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States."
The U.S. Senate has developed procedures for taking disciplinary action against senators through such measures as formal censure or actual expulsion from the Senate. The Senate has two basic forms of punishment available to it: expulsion, which requires a two-thirds vote; or censure, which requires a majority vote. Censure is a formal statement of disapproval. While censure (sometimes referred to as condemnation or denouncement) is less severe than expulsion in that it does not remove a senator from office, it is nevertheless a formal statement of disapproval that can have a powerful psychological effect on a member and on that member's relationships in the Senate.
In the history of the Senate, 10 U.S. Senators have been censured, the most famous being Joseph McCarthy. Their transgressions have ranged from breach of confidentiality to fighting in the Senate chamber and more generally for “conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute”.
In the House of Representatives, censure is essentially a form of public humiliation carried out on the House floor. As the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives reads out a resolution rebuking the member for the specified misconduct, the member must stand in the House well and listen to it. This process has been described as a morality play in miniature.
In the history of the House, censure has been used 23 times, and most of the cases arose during the 19th century. In the modern history of the United States House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (since 1966), censure has been used five times, most recently in December 2010 against Charles B. Rangel.
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- Butler, Anne M., and Wendy Wolff, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases, 1793–1900 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995)