It's hard to expel a member of Congress. Here's what to know
Posted January 28, 2021 5:39 p.m. EST
CNN — Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the conservative Republican firebrand member of Congress, has drawn revulsion in Washington and among Americans just learning about her history of shocking and violent rhetoric.
A fellow lawmaker, California Democratic Rep. Jimmy Gomez, has said he would introduce a resolution to expel her from the chamber, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday slammed Republican leaders for not doing more to punish her.
But don't look for Greene, the QAnon supporter and conspiracy theory pusher, to be run out of Congress any time soon. The system is built to respect the will of the voters in any given congressional district and unless she resigns or a supermajority of the House votes to expel her, Greene is here to stay.
What did she do? CNN's KFile reported this week about Greene's previous endorsement of executing members of Congress before she was a member of Congress.
She also hounded the Parkland shooting survivor turned activist David Hogg across Capitol Hill in 2019, badgering him about school safety and telling him more guns in schools were the answer.
She's posted images of herself armed with an AR-15, warning her political opponents to stay out of northwest Georgia -- a warning that takes on new meaning after the Capitol was stormed and now that law enforcement officials are concerned about lawmakers traveling outside Washington.
As a member of Congress, she's been among the most outspoken opponents of counting electoral votes, even after the storming of the Capitol, and is already trying to impeach President Joe Biden as a sort of counter to the impeachment effort against former President Donald Trump for inciting the riot.
Whether all of that is free speech, intimidation, bullying or outright threats might be up for debate, but whether it will cost Greene her seat in Congress seems very unlikely. Congress can refuse to seat a member, a process known as exclusion, but it hasn't been utilized since the Reconstruction era.
How can a member of Congress be expelled? The Constitution gives Congress the ability to impeach federal officials and judges, but not its own members. They can only be removed by expulsion, which requires a 2/3 vote.
Democrats barely have a House majority and Republicans have not penalized Greene by removing her from committee assignments, which they did to former Iowa Rep. Steve King after his serial racist remarks in recent years.
Who has Congress expelled? More common, but only barely, is expulsion, or when lawmakers kick one of their own out of the chamber. Only 20 federal lawmakers have been expelled in the history of the US (15 in the Senate and only 5 in the House). The vast majority of expulsions had to with the Civil War. There have been only two post-Civil War expulsions -- Rep. Michael Myers, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was kicked out after taking money from undercover FBI agents. The other was James Traficant, the Ohio Democrat, who was convicted of bribery charges.
Does a lawmaker have to break the law to be expelled? No. And Greene has not been charged with any crime. The Constitution gives Congress the power to set its own rules and punish members as they see fit, including expulsion, as long as 2/3 of members agree.
Can voters send a crook to Congress? Sure! The custom in Congress, according to a Congressional Research Service report on the practice, is that a member should not be expelled for conduct that occurred before they took their seat; the idea being voters should get who they want. That's how David Vitter, a former Republican Louisiana senator survived a prostitution scandal. The scandal occurred while he was a House member, so the Senate Ethics Committee, after a 10-month investigation, argued he should not face serious consequences in the Senate. He was reelected a year later, but lost a subsequent run for governor. Vitter's wife, who stood by him, was appointed by Trump as a federal judge.
What if a lawmaker is charged with a crime? Usually, rather than face expulsion, lawmakers facing criminal charges resign when they're convicted. That's what Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter did during the Trump administration. Trump later pardoned both of them. Other lawmakers stick it out and serve on Capitol Hill while standing trial. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat, beat federal corruption charges when authorities dropped the case after a mistrial. And then he won reelection. Trump pardoned the doctor who was accused of being Menendez's co-conspriator.
Again, Greene hasn't been charged with a crime. But even if she was, it's unlikely she'd get thrown out of Congress.
Is there any penalty short of expulsion? There is censure, which has been used more frequently and is less severe, since it is basically a very hard slap on the wrist, but still embarrassing.
In the Senate, there is talk of an effort to censure Trump instead of backing his conviction on impeachment charges of inciting the Capitol insurrection. Unlike Trump, if a House member is censured, they have to stand in the well of the House floor and hear their misdeeds read aloud, a sort of public shaming in front of the rest of the club. The last House member to face censure was Rep. Charles Rangel, the New York Democrat who chaired the tax writing committee but failed to pay his taxes.
An even less severe slap on the wrist is the "reprimand," which was employed against South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson when he shouted "You lie!" at President Barack Obama during an address to Congress. Here's a full list of House expulsions, censures and reprimands.
Why are so few expelled? There may be a number of reasons. One reason is the Constitution, that CRS report points out, that says the people of a district or state should pick their representatives. That is an important right of voters. The people of the 14th congressional district in Georgia choose again whether Greene should represent them in November of 2022.
Related to this is the fact that, almost without fail, lawmakers who face expulsion, censure, reprimand or even criminal inquiries say it's all about politics, rather than decency of the law. The US is a country committed to free speech and an open political process, so this can be a compelling argument.
Another reason it's hard to expel a lawmaker is there's not a good ethics process in place in Congress. Both the House and Senate have ethics committees and processes in their rules. But they're notoriously slow and feckless.
What will Republican leaders do about Greene's comments? They're going to talk to her.
"These comments are deeply disturbing and Leader McCarthy plans to have a conversation with the Congresswoman about them," a spokesman for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, said in a statement Wednesday.
The side story here is that McCarthy is also trying to get back into good graces with Trump and Trump once called Greene a rising star in the party back when he had a Twitter account.
Does Greene face any opposition at home? It's entirely up to voters who they send to Congress, and the voters of Georgia's 14th congressional district picked Greene. In fact, she ran essentially unopposed in the 2020 election, after winning a primary and primary runoff. The rural district, tucked along the Tennessee and Alabama borders, is among the most conservative in the US, according to the Cook Political Report.
The Democrat who challenged her, a political novice named Kevin Van Ausdal, ran a campaign for 31 days before being scared and intimidated out of it by QAnon supporters, and essentially fled the state as his marriage and his life fell apart. Seriously, read this Washington Post profile of his campaign.