« "Friendship in a Time of Cyberattack" | Main | "Thereof," legalese, and the readability of the U.S. Constitution »

Friday, February 07, 2020

The Censure of Joseph McCarthy

I was thinking about this famous episode in light of President's Trump's acquittal. Senator McCarthy was a horrible person who used horrible tactics (aided by Roy Cohn) to destroy innocent people for political gain. When public opinion turned against McCarthy in 1954, more than two-thirds of the Senate voted to censure McCarthy for his misconduct related to a Senate investigation of his behavior. While McCarthy remained in the Senate, he was from then on shunned by his colleagues and died (probably of alcoholism) in 1957.

Why wasn't McCarthy expelled? Evidently, the Senate concluded that his actions did not call for expulsion. There is a similarity between expulsion from the Senate and a Senate impeachment conviction. Both require a two-thirds vote. But the Constitution provides no standard for expulsion from Congress. Still, you could say that Senator McCarthy abused his power (he wasn't accused of a crime) but in a way that did not warrant expulsion (or, put more crudely, two-thirds of the Senate would not have so voted.)

Imagine if Presidents could be formally censured by the Senate. (Yes, the Senate did do this to Andrew Jackson, but the validity of that act was highly questionable.) Maybe the same conclusion reached for McCarthy would have been reached for President Trump. An abuse of power yes: loss of office no.

Posted by Gerard Magliocca on February 7, 2020 at 03:32 PM | Permalink


By that time, his power was diminished and anyway he was one vote of 96 (before the final two states came in). And, censuring your own member is different than censuring someone outside the institution.

I don't know how useful censure is here -- it made more sense, and even then had a diminished role -- in an age where honor mattered more. And, it would matter who it was targeted against.

Censure would insult Trump, which clearly has some limited effect given how he reacts, but ultimately it is more of the same -- more "he is doing unfortunate things but we won't do anything concrete to restrain him."

Posted by: Joe | Feb 11, 2020 10:04:52 AM

I think you are overlooking the history of the Senate under McConnell. The only reason impeachment reached the Senate is because the House vote required the Senate to act. A censure vote requires McConnell to bring it up. And he would not do that, because Trump is not a Democrat.

Posted by: J Bieber | Feb 8, 2020 8:03:18 AM

@ David Bernstein

I agree, but May 5 is already spoken for I think (unless you had in mind fish tacos of course). https://www.congress.gov/bill/109th-congress/house-concurrent-resolution/44.

Posted by: hardreaders | Feb 7, 2020 7:20:10 PM

Well, Jackson made an extended argument about that in his Protest Message.

Posted by: Gerard | Feb 7, 2020 6:07:46 PM

I don't see any reason why the Senate can't censure someone, or why it would be different, powers-wise, than declaring May 5 National Tuna Day or whatever.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Feb 7, 2020 5:59:48 PM

The constitution indeed provides so, I quote ( Article 1, Sec 5):

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.

End of quotation:

So, we could argue that there is a standard, which is : " disorderly behavior ". Seemingly, it does refer also to expulsion. Clearly so it seems.

Yet, it doesn't seem that it can serve impeachment process. The impeachment process has clear and separate procedure, and oriented towards: removal from office. If the minimum agreed, is an unfit president, unfit to serve, how to censure him ? He can't serve no more as president,all in light of criminal conduct, or, fundamentally flawed one.


Posted by: El roam | Feb 7, 2020 4:57:00 PM

Post a comment