Opinion: When lawmakers should be censured, expelled or reprimanded


Ideally, a House member credibly accused of as much cartoonish criminality as Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) would resign, if only to spare himself the humiliation of having his colleagues expel him. That was the norm in bygone eras, which is partly why the body has had to expel only two members since the Civil War. But Mr. Santos refuses to go, though he has said he won't run for reelection. This leaves the House no option but to make him the third.

With Donald Trump-style refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing - let alone resign - becoming the new norm, Congress is likely to have to formally punish more of its members. It has four disciplinary measures: expulsion, censure, fine and reprimand. Sadly, lawmakers now need consistent standards for each, lest they be applied inconsistently across parties and Congresses.

Expulsion should be saved for the most egregious transgressions and considered only once the accused has due process, preferably - though not necessarily - in court. Mr. Santos survived an expulsion vote earlier this month when 31 Democrats joined 182 Republicans to vote no, on the principled grounds that neither a House Ethics Committee investigation nor his impending federal fraud trial had concluded. On Nov. 16, however, the Ethics Committee released a damning report documenting how "Santos sought to fraudulently exploit every aspect of his House candidacy for his own personal financial profit." Committee Chairman Michael Guest (R-Miss.) introduced a resolution to expel Mr. Santos, and it ought to receive the necessary two-thirds majority after Thanksgiving.

Ethics Committees, wary of influencing trials, have historically been reluctant to act until the legal process ends. And even a conviction, if obtained under dubious circumstances, might not warrant expulsion. Neither reservation, however, seems applicable to Mr. Santos - a fabulist who lied to the effect that his grandparents were Holocaust survivors and his mother was in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Especially relevant to this situation, he lied by claiming he was cooperating fully with the ethics probe. In fact, he was stonewalling.

Censure ranks below expulsion in the disciplinary hierarchy. After censuring just six members in the 20th century, the House has slapped that scarlet letter on three members in three years. The latest was Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who, according to a bipartisan majority of her colleagues, was guilty of "calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and dangerously promoting false narratives regarding a brutal, large-scale terrorist attack" by Hamas on Oct. 7. In June, Republicans censured Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) on a party-line vote for accusing Mr. Trump of colluding with Russia. Two years ago, Democrats censured Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) for tweeting an anime video that depicted him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Historically, however, members had been censured for deeds, not words: molesting teenage pages, pocketing bribes and selling military academy appointments. (In hindsight, these offenses merited expulsion.) It would be better for Congress to revert to that norm before an inevitably partisan tit-for-tat denunciation of speech becomes established practice. By that standard, neither Mr. Schiff, Mr. Gosar nor Ms. Tlaib should have been censured.

A more appropriate remedy for Ms. Tlaib would have been a reprimand, which, like censure, also requires a simple majority vote. That's what Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) got when he heckled President Barack Obama in 2009. Another potential punishment is to remove a lawmaker from committee assignments. Mr. Santos voluntarily gave up his committees in January. But it takes a House vote to do it to a member of the opposition party if their leaders won't. That's what Democrats did in 2021 to Mr. Gosar and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who peddled QAnon conspiracy theories. But both Mr. Gosar and Ms. Greene received committee assignments when the GOP took control in January.

With only a four-vote majority, Republicans who vote to remove one of their own will be engaging in a rare consequential action against partisan interest. Senate Democrats should find the same courage to censure Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who is under federal indictment for allegedly taking cash and gifts for aiding the Egyptian government between 2018 and 2022. (He has pleaded not guilty.) He was previously "admonished" in 2018 by the Senate Ethics Committee - a penalty unique to the upper chamber - after a jury deadlocked on charges he used his office to advance a personal benefactor's interests. The current charges seem stronger than those he beat five years ago. Still, the possibility he won't be convicted - along with the impending opportunity, next November, for voters to judge him at the polls - argue against expulsion.

Whatever the outcome of Mr. Menendez's criminal case, or Mr. Santos', their conduct - by any standard - has brought discredit on Congress.

This editorial was originally published Nov. 20 by The Wall Street Journal.