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Censure, an opening move
Media General News Service

March 20, 2006

Sen. Russ Feingold's call for the censure of President Bush is a serious proposal from a serious man. But it comes dripping with political spin because no such process is prescribed in the Constitution.

The last time a presidential censure was discussed, President Clinton was in trouble in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It was offered first as an alternative to impeachment in the House and then in the Senate as a compromise to sweep the whole mess off the table.

Both the Senate and the House refused to adopt censure because it was just a word with no meaning in law and carried no penalty. Both houses decided to take the course of impeachment and conviction or nothing at all. Eventually the House voted for impeachment and the Senate voted against conviction.

They did not mess with Mr. In Between because the Founding Fathers set no such middle course. The only choice was to remove Clinton through the impeachment process or to keep him. They kept him.

Censure of the president, according to the historical minutes of the U.S. Senate, was used "in an unprecedented and never repeated tactic" on March 28, 1834. The Senate demanded that President Andrew Jackson turn over a document and Jackson, in the second year of his second term, refused.

Jackson, two years earlier, had vetoed a bill to re-charter the Bank of the United States. The veto became an issue in his 1832 reelection campaign in which he easily defeated Sen. Henry Clay. Once re-elected, Jackson moved to withdraw federal deposits from the bank, but Clay's anti-administration party still held an eight-vote majority in the Senate.

Clay's party demanded to see a paper that Jackson had read to his Cabinet about the bank issue and Jackson refused, leading to passage of the censure resolution by a vote of 26 to 20.

With Missouri's Thomas Hart Benton leading the way, Democrats campaigned for the next three years to have the censure resolution reversed. When Democrats regained the majority in 1837, the Senate voted to remove the stain on Jackson's record. Here's how it was described in the Senate minutes:

"With boisterous ceremony in a mobbed chamber . . . the secretary took up his pen, drew black lines around the censure text and wrote 'expunged by the order of the Senate.' Henry Clay, dressed in the deep black of a mourner, lamented, 'The Senate is no longer a place for any decent man.' "

Now, just a little short of two centuries later, Feingold wants the Senate to censure again. His cause is Bush's decision to order warrantless wiretapping of e-mails and telephone calls directed at suspects in the war on terrorism.

Feingold said Bush had no legal or constitutional authority to order the National Security Agency to conduct this surveillance. Bush said his general powers as commander in chief and a congressional resolution passed after the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists gave him the authority.

Censure and condemnation are Senate tools used to regulate the conduct of its own members. The process eventually brought down Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose hunts for subversives ruined lives and terrorized policymakers.

Because of the separation of powers, some constitutional scholars doubt censure's validity or meaning as far as regulating the conduct of presidents.

Nonetheless, there was a point in the impeachment process of Bill Clinton where many Democrats and several Republicans wanted a way out and would gladly have voted for censure. In fact, Clinton himself probably would have accepted a censure resolution that would have allowed him to get back to his job.

In the end, however, it was all just talk. No one could have stopped independent counsel Kenneth Starr's impeachment express.

Politically, censure is a longer shot than impeachment. The one time it was used successfully was in the hands of a forceful and skillful legislator and dynamic orator, Henry Clay. Feingold, although a Rhodes Scholar and a potential presidential contender, is no Henry Clay. Conservatives think he is just the opening Democratic pawn on the impeachment chess board.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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