“The Senate is no longer a place for any decent man,” mourned Senator Henry Clay, January 1837. This was his judgment following a Senate vote rescinding a senatorial censure of President Andrew Jackson. Clay appeared in the Senate dressed in the deep black then affected by grieving loved ones over the loss of someone dear.
This all turned on Jackson’s veto of a bill renewing the charter of the Bank of the United States (think of an early Federal Reserve System). In simple terms, Jackson was Democrat; Clay was Whig.
Whigs held a majority over the Democrats and had earlier demanded a paper Jackson had read privately to his Cabinet, related to the bank. Jackson unceremoniously refused to deliver it; that Executive Privilege thing we hear about. After a ten-week debate, the Whig Senate majority voted 26 to 20 (overwhelmingly party-line) to censure Jackson for withholding the memo they desperately wanted to read.
Jackson sent a message denying the validity of the Senate’s censure and the Senate promptly voted party-line to formally refuse to include the President’s message in the Senate Journal. Real soreheads, huh?
Later when the Jacksonian Democrats regained the Senate majority in 1837, led by Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, the Senate rescinded the censure mere weeks before Jackson’s second term ended. That was another party line vote, again.
No president has been formally censured since. Not that it hasn’t been attempted. Censure is more than a reprimand. It’s been described as a public shaming and it is an act outside the Constitution. The only discipline mentioned in the Constitution is impeachment and removal from office by conviction in the Senate. Meaning that censure, while it is an extraordinary act, legislatively it is less than impeachment.
Here is a review of censures that have been advanced against Presidents of the past:
• John Adams: Largely for murky reasons besides his prickly personality, an opposition congressman tried to advance a censure. It did not reach the floor.
• John Tyler: Just because the majority mostly didn’t like him, what began as an impeachment resolution morphed into censure, which was set aside. Finally, so the opposition could walk away with something, it ended up as censure by a select committee composed of opposition party members.
• James K. Polk: This began as a House impeachment bill for launching what was said to be an unconstitutional war on Mexico. That probably had some merit but it became a resolution of censure that was never voted on by the House of Representatives.
• James Buchanan: Apparently he and his secretary of the navy were suspected of awarding contracts to Democrats, based on “party relations.” The resolution was framed as an “admonishment” but was never adopted.
• Abraham Lincoln. Begun as censure but ended as a recommendation to the president that members of Congress should not also be military generals.
• Andrew Johnson: As Lincoln’s successor, Johnson, a Democrat, ran afoul of Radical Republicans and was impeached—no censure, just straight to the heart—for violating the Tenure of Office Act that prohibited a president from dismissing cabinet officers without Senate approval. He did it anyway and won acquittal by one lone Republican senator’s vote.
• Ulysses S. Grant: Grant sent war ships to the Dominican Republic without—horrors!—congressional approval. The resolution for censure never reached the floor.
• William Howard Taft: The president allegedly interfered with a disputed Senate election, back in the day when senators were elected by state legislatures. The censure was dropped but the Senate did adopt a resolution that if presidential interference of that sort did indeed ever occur, it would certainly be a censorial offense.
• Harry S. Truman: During the 1952 steel strike Democrat Truman seized the steel mills on national security grounds. The opposition Republican resolution never received a vote. Besides that, the Supreme Court, on a suit from the (Republican?) steel owners, ruled the president lacked the authority to seize private property for national security or any other reason without, so it indicated, congressional authorization.
• Richard Nixon: Nixon was subject to several opposition censure resolutions: the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, other topics. None reached the floor. Nixon resigned from office in August 1974 following the House Judiciary Committee bipartisan vote recommending several articles of impeachment to the full House.
• Bill Clinton: Monica Lewinsky; need I say more? Many Democrats and not a few Republicans endorsed censure instead of what ultimately occurred, a Senate impeachment trial. The actual articles of impeachment said nothing of Lewinsky but did cover obstruction of justice and perjury in unrelated civil depositions (Clinton lost his law license over that one). Republicans owned the House; impeachment was adopted by Republicans. Democrats owned the Senate; Democrats voted against conviction. With but rare individual exceptions, the members of Congress voted with their party.
• George Bush: Censure resolution over his handling of the Iraq War and, separately, “unlawful authorization of wiretaps” were introduced by opposition congressmen and, like others, went poof, none reaching the floor.
• Barack Obama: Censure resolutions against Obama (introduced by Republicans; a sort of cottage industry) charged that he usurped the legislative power of Congress with flurries of executive orders or, in some way, had acted unlawfully. None reached the floor.
What we see in history is that thing George Washington somewhat naively warned against, as if he could stop it by mere words: Party Faction.
In the first real presidential election in 1800, “party faction” was the going thing. Almost everything we deplore most about American electoral contests were introduced to us by our Founders, including congressional investigations. Thanks, guys.
That said, presidents usually provide the grounds of their own congressional troubles with censure, or almost censure, or just-kidding-around censure.
President Trump is often boorish, tactless, and is said to be “unpresidential.” But given the history of congressional slaps, they just end up looking like one like one party doing the other. And that has been the way it has been since the beginning.
I would feel a whole lot better about it if any censuring or impeachment of any president was undertaken by not by congressional opponents but by congressional friends. Or adopt a rule: one-quarter of the minority party must vote with the majority on issues of censure, reprimand, and admonishment.