Vote of Censure

Brass Tacks

"The Senate must do justice not only to the people of Illinois, but to the United States of America," James A. Reed once counseled, when the upper Chamber was considering the expulsion of one of its members. Today at noon the Senate convenes again to do justice and exercise its rare and solemn power: the right to discipline a Senator.

Congress has seldom done justice to Senator Reed's advice, for the duty of chastising a member usually involves the danger of cleaving a party. For this reason, in exercising the disciplinary discretion it was granted under Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution, the Senate has nearly always chosen to tolerate a member's venom so long as he has adhered to standard, clubmanlike behavior and not threatened to bring the Chamber to chaos. The successful censure motions and expulsions of this century have all gained steam from the fact that the guilty Senators disrupted the upper Chamber by waging scandalous elections or by failing to respect the established rules of the venerable legislative body.

Ten Dollar Cigars

The election of Michigan's Truman Newberry in 1918, for example, lit a bonfire that was to burn in the Senate for four years, and finally became a major factor in the Democrats' success in the 1922 Congressional elections. Newberry, it seems, was guilty of passing out cigars wrapped in tinfoil and $10 bills. No-one would have been outraged if he had distributed them democratically, but unfortunately the Senator gave the tinfoiled cigars to known Democrats, while the $10 variety went to Republican and undecided voters. The Senate, furthermore, chose not to accept Newberry's plea that he was educating the Indians when it was discovered that his supporters had helped the Saginaws mark their ballots.

Because the 1918 and 1920 Congresses were overwhelmingly Republican, Newberry was allowed to retain membership, even after his conviction and imprisonment following a federal court trial. But when the 1922 elections returned many new Democrats to the Senate, Newberry knew he must resign or be ousted.

The other vivid, election-generated expulsions of this century were due to the large campaign chests that Senators Frank Smith of Illinois and William Vare of Pennsylvania acquired in the 1926 election. Smith, for example was nominating chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission which controls the state's utilities. He accepted $203,000 from one of the state's largest privately-owned power companies, and for this violation of the Hatch Act was denied the right to sit as Senator.

If tampering with Senate elections is risky, a Senator commits suicide by defying committees. Connecticut's Senator Hiram Bingham in 1928 incensed both sides of the Senate by listing a highly paid official of the Connecticut Manufacturer's Association as his clerk, and then dragging him to super-secret caucuses of Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee. Over sixty percent of the Senate voted a censure against Bingham for conduct "contrary to good morals and senatorial ethics."

Bilbo Draws Fire

Yet "good morals" to the majority of Senate members may be highly inflammatory to the public. A censure motion against William Langer of North Dakota for obstructing Senate business and a move to refuse seating to the vituperative Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi were both doomed to failure. The Republicans who insisted that Bilbo not be seated violated an old Senate tradition: that Senators whose credentials are in question be allowed to take their seats, pending a report of the Committee on Privileges and Elections. In Bilbo's case the unprecedented tactics were necessary because Southern Democrats who opposed Bilbo on personal grounds could hardly afford to allow an investigation of Mississippi primary elections. The methods of preventing Negroes from voting in Mississippi were, of course, prevalent in all Southern states, and might jeopardize the seats of other Senators.

But Bilbo almost won out. He became violently ill before the showdown on his seating and died seven months later. If he had lived, it is almost certain that the upper Chamber would have voted to seat him, because in retrospect many Senators realized that failure to grant Bilbo a committee hearing was an unjust violation of traditional Senate procedure. These Senators, then, were supporting an unsavory colleague because he had received unfair treatment. In doing this, they almost lost sight of the fact that Bilbo himself made unfairness a sword, and abusive language his cutting edge.

In the past few years the Senate's reverence for outmoded customs has worked in Senator McCarthy's favor. While his behavior has scandalized much of the intelligent public, McCarthy has generally managed to respect Senatorial traditions. His careful adherence to a committee chairman's prerogatives and a solid party-line voting record--almost as much as McCarthy's political potency--made Senators reject overwhelmingly the Benton censure resolution of 1951.

McCarthy Examined Again

When the Senate decided to form a committee to investigate the charges that Flanders and Morse levied at McCarthy, it disappointed Flanders himself but avoided the Bilbo pitfall--the residual sympathy which even a despicable Senator always receives when his traditional rights are violated. Tradition, for once, is working in favor of McCarthy's enemies. By holding hearings in an orderly, judicial manner the Warkins committee allowed McCarthy to cock the gun with which he seems destined to shoot himself.

In the solemn setting of the special censure meeting, the Senate might have forgiven McCarthy--the Senator--in spite of the Committee recommendations. But the assembled group of solons is considering McCarthy the man, and McCarthy has followed his expected form by abusing the fellow Senators who might have given him a lenient hearing. In doing so, he has flopped from his celestial altar. Although Senators are willing to believe the world has gone to hell, they will scarcely allow a colleague to insist they are a lynch party driving it there.