In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, some Democratic members of Congress have alleged that a few of their Republican colleagues helped incite the violence. As a result, a debate has arisen about whether those GOP lawmakers can or should be removed from office.
But forcing an elected member of Congress out of office is easier said than done.
There are basically three ways for a seat in Congress to be vacated before the end of a term: death, resignation and expulsion. The first two are by far the most common.
In recent history, the lion’s share of resignations from Congress have been due to the member taking on a new role in the government, as when Vice President Kamala Harris resigned her seat in the Senate to assume her new role in the Biden administration.
Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution addresses the question of what is required to expel a person from Congress. It states: “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.”
That means that in order to remove a member from either the House or Senate, a two-thirds majority of that chamber needs to vote to do so. It’s only happened 20 times in the last 245 years and all but three of those cases had to do with a member’s support of the Confederacy during the Civil War. In the last 20 years, it’s only happened once: in 2002, Ohio Rep. James Traficant was expelled after being convicted of bribery, tax evasion and racketeering.
While some members of Congress, such as former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., resigned rather than face expulsion, others, like Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, declined to do so and ended up keeping their seats.
In 1942, Sen. William Langer, R-N.D., survived a vote on his expulsion that stemmed from corruption charges during his time as governor of North Dakota. In 1956, Rep. Thomas Lane, D-Mass., served a four-month prison sentence for tax evasion in the middle of his 22-year tenure in the House of Representatives but he didn’t face expulsion.
Short of expelling a member, Congress can vote by simple majority to censure them, which is a public condemnation of their actions. Party leadership can also remove members from committees — something that may be an option in the case of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.
When it comes to expulsion, however, a two-thirds majority vote is a high bar. Although the public outcry over representatives like Greene may be fierce, voters don’t have a formal say in the matter. Except, of course, until the next election.
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