The Democrats beating the drum of impeachment got louder Wednesday when Rep. Al Green of Texas forced a vote to be scheduled on the topic. Frustrated by President Donald Trump’s alleged violations of laws and democratic norms, Green and his like-minded colleagues want to take concrete action now.
Others, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been holding the line against launching impeachment proceedings, are worried about the political consequences of impeaching a president in the House of Representatives only to have the Senate almost certainly fail to follow suit and thus leave Trump in office.
A censure is symbolic, in that it doesn’t remove an officeholder, but it does offer a strong, formal, public rebuke of his or her actions.
We do not, however, live in an impeachment-or-bust world. Congress has another tool in its arsenal to formally declare its disapproval of Trump and his transgressions: It can censure the president. Censure is a process whereby Congress formally reprimands an officeholder for what it perceives as egregious behavior. A censure is symbolic, in that it doesn’t remove an officeholder, but it does offer a strong, formal, public rebuke of his or her actions.
It is time for Congress to do more than decry Trump’s behavior in speeches, on television and via social media. It is time for Congress to do more than pass a narrow resolution condemning openly racist comments about four Democratic representatives. It is time to take the broader and bolder step of censuring the president. Even if such a rebuke doesn’t change the president’s behavior, which it almost certainly will not, the action will still send a message to the voters and the rest of the world that Trump’s actions are beyond the pale.
Unlike impeachment, censure is not mentioned in the Constitution and its process is not set in stone. But Congress has wielded the threat of censure (also known as a reprimand) throughout our nation’s history to register disapproval of a president’s actions. Nowadays, it would likely take the form of a public declaration of misconduct, and then a resolution approved by a simple majority of one or both chambers of Congress.
Congress’ first attempt to reprimand a president occurred in 1800, when the House of Representatives debated but ultimately defeated three resolutions directed against John Adams for alleged judicial interference for telling a federal judge to release an accused criminal into British custody.
Andrew Jackson was the first president to be censured, although Congress did not use that word yet. In 1834, Congress voted to reprimand Jackson for allegedly seizing powers not given to him by the Constitution when he withheld documents from a congressional investigation into his withdrawal of deposits from a federal bank whose charter he vetoed. (When Democrats reclaimed the Senate, they expunged the censure.)
In 1842, the House of Representatives considered reprimanding John Tyler for allegedly abusing power by vetoing a number of pieces of legislation. Just six years later, after President James Polk initiated action that led to the Mexican-American War, the House voted to approve language condemning Polk for “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States.”
In 1860, the House adopted a resolution accusing President James Buchanan and his secretary of the Navy of giving government contracts to political allies.
Even iconic presidents have faced formal reprimand by Congress.
In 1864, the Senate considered reprimanding Abraham Lincoln – but ultimately didn’t – for allowing two generals to return to military service after they won election to the House, an action which purportedly transgressed Lincoln’s presidential authority. The fact that Lincoln remains a revered president doesn’t lessen the need to use this tool today.
While the 1900s was an active time for the censuring of presidents, it slowly fell into disuse for a century. Congress revived the idea of a censure in the midst of the Watergate scandal in 1973, but Richard Nixon resigned before the resolutions won support.
In 1998, a scandal-plagued Bill Clinton unsuccessfully worked with Democrats to accept a censure in place of impeachment, and his successor, George W. Bush, was again the subject of a failed censure bid concerning the faltering Iraq War.
Though recent history hasn’t seen a successful use of the censure, which indeed should only be used sparingly, it is time to change that. The censure is a tool for extraordinary transgressions, and we live in extraordinary times.
A censure is a small but concrete step, and it does not preclude impeachment at a later date.
Congress needs to demonstrate that it is not blind to Trump’s norm-breaking and potentially criminal behavior. Trump has not only engaged in racist and misogynistic behavior, he also routinely lies to the American public, has engaged in acts possibly amounting to abuse of power, uses the presidency for his own financial gain (potentially in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause), has flouted Congress’ oversight authority and has possibly engaged in obstruction of justice. The list could go on.
While Congress weighs the potential pros and cons of embarking on impeachment proceedings, it should take immediate action to address Trump’s serial transgressions now. A censure is a small but concrete step, and it does not preclude impeachment at a later date. If anything, it could possibly help make the case for impeachment more clear if and when that moment comes.