March 24, 2017

Process of Punishing Unethical House Members

The Constitution is clear on how the House of Representatives handles the misconduct of its members. Article 1 Section 5 enumerates the power to punish disorderly members with sanctions and expel a House member with a “concurrence of two thirds.” Before the full House votes on punishments for a member, the House ethics subcommittee, known as the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct, recommends a punishment. There are 3 types of punishments: reprimands are for the least serious violations, censures are for more serious violations, and expulsions are for the most serious violations.

During the 43 years the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct has operated, it has recommended sanctions upon a House member 16 different times. Four recommendations have been for expulsions, with the most recent being James Traficant in 2002. Three recommendations have been for censures, with the most recent being Charlie Wilson in 1980. Nine recommendations have been for reprimands, with the most recent being Newt Gingrich in 1997. Among these 16 recommendations, the entire House has approved the recommendations 13 times. Two of these unapproved recommendations were for reprimands, but the full House imposed censures; whereas the other unapproved recommendation was for censure, but the full House instead imposed a reprimand.

Yesterday, the House ethics subcommittee recommended censure for Democratic Representative Charlie Rangel, who was found guilty of 11 different ethical violations on Tuesday. Prior to Rangel’s convictions, the greatest amount of violations this subcommittee had found a member guilty of was 8 violations, which was Charlie Wislon in 1980. Despite the high number of Rangel’s violations, the nature of his violations were not among the most serious type. Read the allegations against Rangel here [.pdf].

Lastly, as the record of ethical violations indicates, there is a high likelihood of the House voting to approve the subcommittee’s recommendation to censure Rangel. Whenever a member of the House receives censure, there are no legal consequences, but only a formal condemnation of the member’s disorderly conduct.

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