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Len’s Letter #36   Tales of Congress

2021                        Governing

Congressional punishments – expulsion, censure, reprimands, committee removal – have been used regularly for corruption.  There have been punishments or attempts at punishments for matters other than corruption.  The non-corruption occasions for punishment were often connected with periods of national tension.  The House’s removal of Marjory Taylor Greene from her committee memberships was one of those.  I decided to look at other congressional punishments not necessarily related to (or not wholly related to) corruption.

The American Revolution

Shortly after the United States was formed, two incidents led to the expulsion of Senators from Congress. Both were connected with consolidating a sense of nationhood.

In 1797, Senator William Blount of Tennessee was expelled from the Senate because he conspired with Native American tribes to support a British effort to conquer Florida.  In 1808, in a 19-10 vote, just short of the two-thirds constitutional requirement, John Smith of Ohio was not expelled from the Senate for joining with Aaron Burr in his attempt to carve a nation out of Mexican territory in the West.

The Civil War

The differences that led to the Civil War created tensions among legislators greater than ever before or since.

On May 22, 1856, offended by speeches denouncing slavery, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its authors, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, cousin and ally of one of the Acts authors, beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with his cane.  Brooks had at least two accomplices.  South Carolina Lawrence Keitt had persuaded Brooks that Sumner was not his social equal and, therefore, not worthy of a duel. He and Virginia Congressman Henry Edmunson protected Brooks while he was whacking away at Sumner’s head. They blocked those who tried to stop the carnage.

Consider this as our current Congress has conversations about metal detectors to check for weapons.  Keitt and Edmunson blocked those who tried to stop the carnage, shouting that other Congressmen should leave Brooks and Sumner alone.  They waived a pistol to ensure that their shouts would be heeded.

Brooks was arrested, tried in a DC court, convicted and fined $300.  Congress considered Brooks’ expulsion, but the effort failed.  Nevertheless, he resigned from Congress and was elected overwhelmingly in a special election.  He was reelected in November 1856, but died of disease before he could take office in the next Congress.

An effort to censure Congressman Edmundson failed but Congressman Keitt was censured by the House.  Keitt resigned, ran again in a special election, and was elected overwhelmingly.  He was reelected in November, 1856.  In 1858, he attempted to choke a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania who he felt had disparaged him.  No censure that time.

The Civil War itself led to several expulsions from Congress. Twelve Senators and three members of the House of Representatives were expelled for treason.  One Senator was found to support the South’s secession, but not expelled.

World War I and International Socialism

 World War I began in 1914.  One consequence of the war …. Should I say, a context for the war was the growth of a kind of socialism that frightened the West.  In 1917, the Russian revolutionaries abolished the monarchy, repudiated the Russian debt, and much more – creating what was intended to be a new version of society, a version that the leadership of the countries on both sides of WW I saw as dangerous.  In 1919, in the United States, Eugene Debs, frequent socialist candidate for the American presidency, was arrested for opposing the war.

 Victor Berger of Milwaukee was elected to, but not seated by Congress.  Berger was a socialist.  He opposed the Great War and was convicted twice under the Espionage Act.  He was actually elected twice – in 1918 and 1919.  Both times Congress would not  seat him.

In 1919, complaints extended beyond socialists.  Progressive Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette Sr. was accused of disloyalty and expulsion was proposed.  When the Senate voted on the question, a majority opposed expulsion.

Race in Congress

In 1967, the year before Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, the House of Representatives sought to exclude one of its few Black members.  The ostensible reason was Adam Clayton Powell’s corruption, but was it only that?

Adam Clayton Powell of New York was one of a handful of Black Members of Congress.  He had followed his father as Pastor of Harlem’s largest church, was elected to New York’s City Council, assisted by a form of Ranked Choice Voting to which New York is returning to in 2021, and was elected to Congress in 1944.  In the 1960s, he was in trouble for his personal conduct — taking two women to Florida; refusing to pay a slander judgment.  Offended by his behavior and by his race, he was removed as Chair of the House Labor and Education Committee by the Democratic Caucus in anticipation of the 90th Congress that began in 1967.  A bipartisan Select Committee was created in 1967 to further consider Powell’s behavior.  Powell was not allowed to sit in Congress while the Select Committee considered his fate.

The Select Committee found that Powell had used Congressional funds for personal purposes and recommended that he be fined and stripped of his seniority.  In March, 1967, notwithstanding the recommendation, the House as a whole voted “to exclude” him from Congress 307-116.  He was promptly re-elected to Congress overwhelmingly in a special election, but refused to take his seat.   He won re-election in November of 1968 and was seated in January, 1969 — fined and stripped of seniority.

Powell won a battle but lost the war.  The Supreme Court ruled that “exclusion” was the same as “expulsion.” And the constitution required a two-thirds vote for expulsion.  The Court ruled the House had acted unconstitutionally. (Apparently, the House was able to get a two-thirds vote for “exclusion,” but not “expulsion.”) Powell’s victory was pyrrihic.  He lost the 1990 Democratic primary to Charlie Rangel, did not collect enough signatures to run as an independent, and was, therefore, out of Congress.

Sex and power

A decade after the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed, Americans and their representatives were developing a consciousness of the inappropriate exercise of power for sex.

In 1983, Congressman Gerry Studds of Massachusetts was censured for an affair with a 17 year-old male page.  Studds remained in Congress for several additional terms. Also in 1983, Congressman Dan Crane of Illinois was censured for an affair with a 17 year-old female page. Crane did not run for Congress again.  In 1985 Senator Bob Packwood resigned after an Ethics Committee recommendation for expulsion for what we would now call inappropriate touching of female staff.

Party discipline.

As the Democrats and Republicans became more ideological, they exercised greater political discipline.  Mid-twentieth century party switchers – Wayne More, Strom Thurmond – were a prelude to party ideological consistency.  The exercise of party discipline in the early twenty-first century were examples of how America and American political parties were changing.

In 2001, Democrats removed Congressman Jim Traficant of Ohio from all committees after he voted for a Republican as Speaker should have that role.  That he was about to be indicted for corruption may have been an additional factor.

In 2012, several Republican Members of Congress were removed from some committees because they would not vote with leadership – David Schweikert of Arizona, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Justin Amash of Michigan, and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas.  (Only Schweikert is still in Congress.)

Race, Gender, and Religion

The late twentieth century changes in American political parties, characterized by Nixon’s Southern strategy, Reagan’s attacks on the government and on welfare, and California Republicans’ attacks on Hispanic immigrants created a whiter and more southern Republican party. Despite the shift, Republicans sought to maintain a generalized criticism of racism.

In contrast, the Democrats became a more diverse political party at a time when the country’s demographics were becoming more diverse.  African-Americans and Hispanics became crucial important for Democrats’ success.

As the proportion of non-whites in the Democratic Party changed, so did the proportion of women.  In 2018, Pew Research described 56% of women as Democrats or Leaning to Democrats, while the comparable figure for Republicans was 36%.

Despite the demographic shifts, Republicans as well as Democrats identified explicitly inappropriate views of race, religion, and gender as a bad thing. In 2019 Steve King of Iowa was removed from all committees after his remarks In a New York Times interview.  He asked: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”   Republicans had suddenly noticed fellow-Republican Steve King’s frequent racist remarks.  King may have earned that notice as he developed a greater national and international presence.

King’s removal from committees followed a controversy about Democratic Member of Congress Ilhan Omar’s remarks which were seen to be anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.  Some Republican Members had urged that she be removed from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

A Black woman and a Muslim, she had responded to a journalist’s comment about the time American leaders spend defending Israel.  She said: “it’s all about the Benjamins.”  The Anti-Defamation League said her statement fed into an anti-Semitic belief that Jews use their wealth to control the government.  Omar apologized.

She got herself in trouble again when she commented “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”  She was criticized for implying that Jews have a dual loyalty, loyalty to Israel as well as to the United States. Republicans called for a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and, specifically, Ilhan Omar’s statements.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi took control of the situation.  She organized a resolution that condemned anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of bigotry; a resolution that did not mention Ilhan Omar by name. The resolution passed 427-23, only Republicans opposing.  One Member of Congress, Steven King abstained.  Omar issued a statement shortly after the resolution passed: “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”

This year, newly elected Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a follower of QAnon whose core belief is that a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media, went undisciplined by the Republicans. Her various statements and actions accompanied the insurrection, the attempted overthrow of the US election process (an attempt to violently overthrow the US government, really):

  • President Trump claimed the vote counting that led to his defeat was rigged, that he actually won the 2020 election,
  • Trump-supporting Members of Congress planned to challenge the Electoral College ballot count on January 6, the date Congress was scheduled to count the ballots,
  • Trump spoke to and took his final step in inciting the thousands of his supporters who had gathered to march on the Capitol, and
  • The Trump supporters invaded the Capitol building, threatening assassinations as they temporarily prevented the ballot counting from happening.

When the Republican conference took no action against Marjorie Taylor Greene, Congress as a whole, led by a unified Democratic Party, removed Greene from her committees.  Greene’s statements had included leading Democrats among the Satan-Worshipers —  President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, activist financier George Soros, entertainers and Hollywood celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Ellen DeGeneres , and religious figures including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. Some QAnon followers believe that, in addition to molesting children, members of this group kill and eat their victims to extract a life-extending chemical called adrenochrome.

Greene had gone beyond QAnon’s core beliefs.  She had supported the idea of assassinating Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  She had suggested that George Soros or other Jews used lasers from space to start the California forest fires.  She had stated that school shootings were hoaxes intended to generate opposition to gun ownership.  She had claimed that airplanes did not knock down the towers on 9/11.  She had supported the idea that Hillary Clinton was behind the airplane crash death of John F. Kennedy Jr. She had claimed that former President Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim as was his long-time aide Valerie Jarett.  She had argued that the election of two Muslim women to Congress, Ilhan Omar as one of them, in 2018 was part of a Muslim invasion of our country.

Minority leader Kevin McCarthy did not take control of the situation. He held a meeting of the Republican conference to consider whether or not there should any consequence for Greene.  He acquiesced to Marjorie Taylor Greene who had said: “If Republicans cower to the mob, and let the Democrats and the fake news media take me out they’re opening the door to come after every single Republican until there’s none left.”

It wasn’t her fault, she explained – first to the Republican conference and then to Congress as a whole (and, I guess, to the American people).  She had been particularly upset by the unfair claims of Russian interference in the 2016 election.  She read stuff on Facebook and other social media and she liked what she read. Because of the media she was “allowed to believe things that weren’t true.”

For this non-apology, the Republican conference gave her a standing ovation.  Which things of QAnon and the other conspiracy theories did she believe were not true?  She explains; “any source of information that is a mix of truth and a mix of lies is dangerous, no matter what it is saying, what party it is helping, anything or any country it is about, it’s dangerous.”  Some of what she believed was true; some not.  She doesn’t say which.  She adds that the mainstream media is as guilty as QAnon.  They too mix truth and lies. They too try to divide the country.  Furthermore, Republicans have been losing because they do not fight.

Congress took the position that she had gone beyond what was acceptable – that she should be removed from committee assignments.  Eleven Republican members of Congress agreed with all of the Democrats.  Greene has been removed from her committees.

You could argue she should not have been removed from committees, should not be punished for mere statements.  Omar wasn’t punished for her statements, after all.

Even if you took such a position, there were actions or threats of actions for which Marjory Taylor Greene should have been punished.  Greene’s support for killing Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders is not simply an expression of free speech.  Greene’s display of a photograph of her holding an AK-15 next to Democratic Members of Congress is not simply an expression of free speech.  Greene’s harassment of a survivor of the Parkland school shooting is not simply an expression of free speech.

One more thought

Even though there are parallels between the Democrats situation in 2019 and the Republicans in 2021, there is no equivalence.

Ilhan Omar made remarks that were problematic on one important issue.  She apologized and, more important, learned from the reaction she received.  Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic caucus turned the problem into an opportunity to unite the Party and nearly unite the Congress — criticizing speech that should be criticized.

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s remarks were more than problematic; they were inconceivable.  Jewish lasers starting forest fires?  No planes attacked the towers on 9/11?  Assassinate Nancy Pelosi?   Greene explained the comments away and did not apologize.  She equated the social media lies and “truths” with the main stream media “lies” and truths.  Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the Republicans found a problem and reified it. He nearly united the Republican conference around speech which was unimaginable as truth. He and the Republican conference lionized speech and a speaker who should have been ostracized.

Though the issues that brought Omar and Greene to the fore had to do with anti-Semitism, the crucial issue for our political parties is race.  The Democratic Party is transforming itself to resemble the diversity of the country.  The Republican effort to be the white man’s party is a strategy that either fails or damages the country.  The country needs its political parties to resemble the country, to unite the country and the Congress — relying on speech and actions that welcome the country’s diversity.  Until that happens, our crisis will continue.  We’ll have more Congressional punishments and more reasons for punishing Members of Congress.

Two Relevant Organizations:

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)  The official campaign organization of Democrats in Congress.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC).  The official organization of the Democratic Party.