Why Censure the President?

COMMENTARY Political Process

Why Censure the President?

Feb 11th, 2020 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Thomas Jipping

Deputy Director, Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Thomas is the Deputy Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and a Senior Legal Fellow.
The legislative branch has two options for reacting to the conduct of the president. Congress can express its opinion about him, or it can attempt to impeach and remove him. Win McNamee / Staff / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The left has been trying to censure Trump for as long as they have been trying to impeach him.

Censure is, as the Senate website explains, a “formal statement of disapproval” that is “a less severe form of discipline” than expulsion.

It is about time for them to move on and get back to the business of the American people.

The headline is about a resolution to censure President Trump. Since there has been chatter about censure as an alternative to impeachment, you might think this was a recent article. But this headline appeared two years ago. The left has been trying to censure Trump for as long as they have been trying to impeach him. The article was about a resolution by Representative Jerrold Nadler, now the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who has unveiled articles of impeachment. But censure is no more appropriate now than when Nadler had introduced his resolution.

Censure has nothing to do with impeachment. It most often used by the House or Senate to discipline its own members. Censure is, as the Senate website explains, a “formal statement of disapproval” that is “a less severe form of discipline” than expulsion. This year, Democratic Representative Bobby Rush had introduced a House resolution to censure a Republican member for statements he made about immigrants. Last year, Republican Representative Andy Biggs introduced a House resolution to censure a Democratic member for his conduct that would incite public discord.

Directing censure against the president, however, is a different matter. Impeachment is established by the Constitution as the first step in the process of Congress removing the president for serious misconduct. But the separation of powers means that censure, which is not mentioned in the Constitution, is nothing more than a resolution offering an opinion about the president to anyone who cares enough to pay any attention.

More than a hundred “sense of” the House or Senate resolutions of this sort have been introduced this year alone. They express opinions about topics that range from promoting American leadership in 5G wireless technology, picking the subjects for commemorative postage stamps, having members of Congress be substitute teachers for one day a year, restoring and maintaining the Mardasson Bridge in Belgium, rebuilding the United States Navy, addressing climate change, cleaning debris in the Tijuana River, and creating a Supreme Court First Amendment precedent.

When it comes to resolutions in Congress, the possibilities are endless. Either chamber can pass a resolution at any time expressing any opinion on any matter that it chooses. Only one censure resolution directed at a particular president, however, has ever passed the Senate or House. In 1834, the Senate had debated for 10 weeks before voting for a resolution censuring President Jackson for “assuming power not conferred by the Constitution.” Three years later, after his party took control of the Senate in the election, censure was then expunged from official proceedings.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the House passed a resolution of reproof against President Buchanan in 1860. Unsuccessful resolutions of censure, reprimand, or denunciation have been introduced against presidents such as John Adams, James Polk, Ulysses Grant, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama.

The resolution introduced by Nadler stated that the House “does hereby censure and condemn” Trump for how he responded to the violence that occurred in Charlottesville. It was then referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which took no further action. Recent suggestions about the censure of Trump echo the 1998 chatter from folks who sought a way to criticize Clinton without going so far as to threaten removal from office.

In 1999, Republican Representative Amo Houghton introduced a House resolution declaring that Clinton had “brought upon himself, and fully deserves, the censure and condemnation of the American people and the Congress.” The proposal, however, was for Clinton to sign that resolution, make a $500,000 donation to the Treasury, refrain from raising money for the Democratic Party or candidates, and never “serve in public office in any capacity” in the future. Not surprisingly, the resolution was ignored.

Two months later, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, with more than three dozen bipartisan cosponsors, then introduced a Senate resolution to “censure” and “condemn” the conduct of Clinton “in the strongest terms.” A motion to proceed to that resolution was ruled out of order, and it was eventually referred to the Senate Rules Committee but never emerged.

The legislative branch has two options for reacting to the conduct of the president. Congress can express its opinion about him, or it can attempt to impeach and remove him. The Democrats have been exercising the first option almost continuously ever since Trump took office. It is about time for them to move on and get back to the business of the American people.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 12/10/19