What Happens When Congressmen Break The Rules?

November 18, 2010 3:38 a.m.
EDITORS' NOTE: TPM is making our COVID-19 coverage free to all readers during this national health crisis. If you’d like to support TPM's reporters, editors and staff, the best way to do so is to become a member.

The House ethics committee will likely decide today how Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) should be punished for committing 11 ethics violations. They could recommend a range of sanctions, from giving him a stern talking to all the way to kicking him out.

No one expects Rangel, a 40-year congressman who was just re-elected with 80 percent of the vote, to be expelled. He will, more likely, face reprimand or censure.

In order to give a little bit of context to whatever punishment is recommended for Rangel, we thought we’d show you how different congress members had earned each of the three main types of sanction: expulsion, censure and reprimand.Expulsion

Rep. Jim Traficant (D-OH) was the last person to face an ethics hearing, in 2002, and only the fifth person to be thrown out of the House of Representatives. Traficant was convicted that year in criminal court — before his ethics hearing — of bribery and racketeering charges and sentenced to several years in prison. He still fought against his expulsion, defending himself in his signature profane, bellicose and passionate style, even declaring at one point that he hated the government and asked one of his witnesses, a female aide, if they had ever been lovers. After he was found guilty of violations, he refused to resign. The House still expelled him in a vote of 420 to 1.

He ran for re-election, unsuccessfully, from prison. He was released last year and ran again, futilely, this November for his old seat on a platform of dismantling the IRS.

Before Traficant, Rep. Ozzie Myers was expelled in 1990, also after being convicted of bribery. The three before them, according to the Congressional Research Service, were all kicked out during the Civil War for disloyalty to the Union.


Censure is a type of formal rebuke from the House which involves the member standing on the House floor while the speaker verbally scolds him and reads out the language of the censure motion. A couple of dozen members have been censured over the years. According to the CRS, they’ve been censured for a wide range of offenses deemed not serious enough for expulsion:

insulting or other unparliamentary language on the floor, assaulting another Member, supporting recognition of the Confederacy, the selling of military academy appointments, bribery, payroll fraud where inflated staff salaries were used to pay a Member’s personal expenses, receipt of improper gifts and improper use of campaign funds, and sexual misconduct with House pages.

The most recent censures were imposed on Reps. Gerry Studds (D-MA) and Daniel Crane (R-IL) in 1983, after they both admitted to having sexual relations with 17-year-old pages: Studds with a male page; and Crane with a female page. Other notable censures include Rep. Lovell Rousseau, who in 1866 beat a fellow congressman with his cane until it broke, and Rep. William Stanberry, who in 1832 suggested the speaker spent too much time thinking about his White House ambitions and was censured for insulting the speaker.


Reprimand is basically the same thing as censure — a public rebuke — only less severe. Until the 1970s, the names were interchangeable.

Among the recent reprimands: Newt Gingrich, for using a charity for political purposes and then lying about it; Barney Frank, for fixing parking tickets for his former boyfriend; and Joe Wilson, for screaming “You lie!” at the president during a joint session of Congress.

Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Senior Editor:
Special Projects Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Publishing Associate:
Front-End Developer:
Senior Designer: