After the release of a scathing House Ethics Committee report, Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) says he expects the House of Representatives to expel him soon. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy. In addition, a bipartisan group in the House recently voted to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) over her criticisms of Israel. A previous censure vote failed.
There is another important option for Republicans and Democrats to punish members of their party who act inappropriately or bring shame on Congress, but that option is seldom used.
When considering punishments for inappropriate or illegal behavior among members of Congress, most discussions highlight (1) expulsion from Congress (the most severe punishment, requiring a two-thirds vote), (2) censure (a majority vote disapproving a member’s conduct), and (3) reprimand (also by majority vote but less severe than censure). House leaders can also impose fines or remove errant members from committees.
However, both the House Republican Conference rules and Democratic Caucus rules allow for the expulsion of a House member from their Conference or Caucus.
Current Republican rules say, “All Republican Members of the House of Representatives … shall be Members of the Conference. … A ⅔ vote of the entire membership shall be necessary to expel a Member of the Conference.”
The Democratic Caucus lays out three “procedures [that] shall govern when a Member chooses to leave the Democratic Party,” and then adds, “The Caucus may expel any Member by a two-thirds vote, of those voting and present.”
These are rules that govern each party’s own members, yet they seem to be rarely used. Censure, by contrast, is becoming more common. I talked with some individuals who had long institutional knowledge, and they could not recall any members of the House being ousted from the GOP Conference or Democratic Caucus.
Interestingly, some Republicans have made precisely this recommendation with respect to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) for his efforts to oust then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). In an Oct. 3 op-ed for the Washington Post, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) wrote, “Gaetz’s motion to remove McCarthy should have been swiftly defeated, but it wasn’t; he should still be expelled from the House Republican Conference. House Republicans have far more important things to do than entertain one member’s ego.”
Gingrich wasn’t the only one. The Post’s Jacob Bogage reports, “Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.) told reporters Wednesday that he thought Gaetz should be expelled from the party’s conference but that he had not taken any actions to begin that process. Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said repercussions for Gaetz would be ‘pursued in the conference.’”
While Gaetz’s actions affected the whole House, and by extension the country, his antics mostly damaged the GOP. Gingrich and others’ call to expel Gaetz from the GOP Conference would have been a defensible, even commendable, punishment. But Republicans did not take that step.
As for Tlaib, her antisemitic comments are a problem for the Democratic Party, especially as many voters increasingly believe they see some Democrats siding with the terrorist group Hamas. As a result, 22 Democrats voted with nearly all Republicans for Tlaib’s censure.
As mentioned, rules for both the Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus require a two-thirds vote to expel a member, but that’s an intra-party disciplinary action. The other party can’t interfere.
Is it possible for an ousted but remorseful House member to return to the party’s fold? The Democratic Caucus rules say members who choose to leave the party can be reinstated with the “support in writing of at least five Members delivered by letter to the Chair,” plus “a majority vote on a secret ballot.” Would that also apply to an expelled member of the Democratic Caucus? Maybe, but the rules don’t say.
The benefit of expulsion from the Conference or Caucus, rather than expulsion from the House, is it is easier to achieve, while demonstrating the outraged party intends to take a visible and public stand against inappropriate or illegal behavior. That’s an important option now because voters need both parties to demonstrate as much moral clarity as possible.