Should Congress Expel Its Most Terrible Members?

It should. Here’s why it won’t.

Congress meeting in a joint session. Source: Time

The end of the Donald Trump administration brought with it a pair of new representatives who best embodied his paranoid outlook on the American political system. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia) and Lauren Boebert (Colorado) both caused scandal when they won their 2020 primaries in deep red districts. Greene drew the most attention. She is a proud believer in the delusional QAnon conspiracy theory. Her past Facebook posts advocated the murder of Democratic leaders. One even posited that Jews had created a space laser that caused California wildfires in order to clear space for a high-speed rail project. In New York, Ed Kilgore described Greene as “the symbol of the radicalized Republican Party that Donald Trump left behind like the trail of a radioactive slug.”

Boebert is close behind. She won fame for refusing to shutter her gun-themed restaurant due to coronavirus restrictions. After being elected to Congress, she was photographed with numerous violent reactionaries. Boebert was also alleged to have taken pro-Trump insurrectionists on a tour of the Capital shortly before the January 6th riot.

For many Americans, the standard recourse of waiting until the next election to remove obstinate congressmen is not enough for Boerbert and Greene. They want an immediate removal. The rules of the House clearly state that members can be expelled with a two-thirds vote. A number of Democrats are clamoring for the Democratic House to take this action. Representative Jimmy Gomez (D-California) introduced a resolution to expel Greene last week, arguing that her “advocacy for extremism and sedition not only demands her immediate expulsion from Congress, but it also merits strong and clear condemnation from all of her Republican colleagues.”

There is precedent, of course, for Congress expelling members in the past. In 1861, eleven states seceded from the Union and engaged in open rebellion over the issue of slavery. Those states were all represented by senators and members of Congress. When several members from those states refused to resign, they were expelled. The most dramatic of these expulsions was that of John C. Breckinridge, a senator from Kentucky who had previously served as Vice President. In her history of Washington during the Civil War, Margaret Leech wrote, “Four months after the outbreak of war, [Breckenridge] had been in his seat at the Capitol, paying lip service to the old flag.” When Breckenridge returned to attack Washington in 1864 as a Confederate general, “Washington held Breckinridge to be a traitor who had returned to assault a city where he had been held in honor.” (Leech, Reveille in Washington, 425–426)

A more recent example was the case of Michael Myers, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. In 1980, Myers became involved in the Abscam scandal, a public corruption scam that involved numerous congressmen and senators. The congressman was videotaped taking $50,000 in cash as a bribe and recorded saying “money talks” when asked to take it. He was expelled from the House in October of 1980. The six other congressmen and senators accused alongside him all resigned. Myers was sentenced to three years in federal prison in 1981.

Neither of these examples holds much hope for critics of Greene and Boebert. The Civil War expulsions had been the first of any member of Congress in 70 years. Even in the case of men who had seceded from the United States, several of the votes were not unanimous. Michael Myers’s 1980 expulsion vote, which occurred after a lengthy trial for a federal crime, was not unanimous either. Thirty members of the House voted to retain a man who was caught on video accepting a substantial bribe.

Greene and Boebert will most likely not be expelled. Their continued service in Congress can be helpful, however. They are the clearest proxy yet for the diehard Trump voter. Democrats and other Trump opponents can use their beliefs as an example of how Trump would respond to certain events that happen in the American political system. They are also a litmus test for whether “Trumpism without Trump” can survive through the Biden administration and perhaps fuel a Trump run in 2024. Congress may not be able to rid itself of these two most radical members. But their tenure may tell us how to stop a second Trump term.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.

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