Congress

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In this century only two men have been denied admission to the House. Victor Berger, a Socialist, was twice excluded before being admitted in 1923, after the Supreme Court reversed his conviction under the World War I Sedition Act. The Court intervened again in 1969 to secure the seat of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who had been excluded in 1967 after a series of sensational hearings into alleged instances of tax evasion, libel, and misuse of committee funds. The Senate has excluded only one individual, Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, a black from Louisiana who claimed victory in a disputed legislative election in 1873. After three years of delay and debate the Senate refused to accept his credentials. [See “The Carpetbagger,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , December, 1973.]

To date the House has censured seventeen members and one delegate, the bulk of them in the nineteenth century, with twelve of the cases arising between 1864 and 1875. The censures have centered principally on the use of unparliamentary or treasonous language in debate, on bribery, and on the sale of appointments. The only case in this century resulted from the insertion of an allegedly obscene letter in the Congressional Record in 1921.

Seven senators have been censured since 1789: two for a breach of security, two for fighting on the chamber floor, and one for unethical acts. In the two most recent cases Joseph McCarthy was censured for “the abuse of members” in 1954 and Thomas Dodd in 1967 for the misuse of campaign funds.

All cases of expulsion from the House occurred during the Civil War, when three members’ seats were vacated on the grounds of treason. The Senate, by contrast, has considered a total of thirty-two cases leading to expulsion, all but four of them in the nineteenth century. William Blount, a senator from Tennessee, was expelled in 1797 for treason, the same charge applied to twenty-one Southerners and one border-state senator during the Civil War. In nine non-Civil War cases five senators charged with bribery at various times resigned before a vote could be taken, and the four others were cleared of charges either by select investigating committees or by the entire Senate.

On the whole, none of these actions has proved effective in establishing confidence in the integrity of either house. There is—and has been historically—widespread suspicion that only the most obvious cases of self-discipline have been brought to public view. Both houses, in fact, have conspicuously ignored persisting demands that Congress produce a strict code of ethics covering such matters as the disclosure of finances, conflicts of interest, and incompetence. Particularly in the aftermath of Watergate, when Congress has the opportunity to reassert its prerogatives and to reassume initiatives long since relinquished, some concrete demonstration of its own integrity might go a long way in re-establishing confidence in our system of government.