Expulsion, the virtual equivalent of impeachment, is the boldest action that Congress can take, and what Senate Republicans promise will be on the table if Moore is victorious. Yet history shows that, in contrast to censure, this has been a power rarely used.
The biggest burst of expulsions in both chambers took place around the time of the Civil War when support for secession and the Confederacy were deemed intolerable. Bribery has also been a stimulant to action. In October 1980, the House expelled Pennsylvania Representative Michael Myers, who had been convicted of bribery as part of the ABSCAM scandal, when members were caught on tape taking bribes from FBI agents dressed as Arab sheiks. And in July 2002, the House expelled the eccentric James Traficant of Ohio, who had been convicted for racketeering, bribery, and tax evasion. The last time a senator was expelled was in 1862.
The other cases of expulsion remain “might-have-beens” since members resigned before colleagues had to vote on a course of action. In 1862, for example, Rhode Island Senator James Simmons resigned when it looked like he would be expelled as a result of corruption charges. Oregon Senator Robert Packwood resigned in 1995 following allegations of sexual harassment. New Jersey Senator Harrison Williams, who had also been caught up in the ABSCAM sting, stepped down under the threat of expulsion. Nevada Senator John Ensign resigned in 2011 as the ethics committee was investigating financial wrongdoing involving an affair with a staffer. When House Speaker Jim Wright faced an unfavorable ethics committee report in 1989, based on an investigation driven by the hyper-partisan Newt Gingrich, he resigned from Congress rather than allowing the process to go forward.
The pressures against expulsion will remain just as strong today as in the past. Republicans will likely be concerned about pushback from Alabama voters if they decide to elect Moore. Moore, for his part, is attempting to provide himself some insurance by portraying this as a campaign by the corrupt establishment to take him out of the race. It’s also possible that senators will be leery about expelling Moore, given sexual-misconduct allegations against other members in Congress. Partisanship might shape their response too, as Republicans look to move forward agenda items like health care and tax policy.
Of course, expelling Moore would not really solve the problem that has been front and center in the national dialogue for months now. The real question is whether a male-dominated institution that has a sordid history of skirt-chasing and workplace harassment finally changes its ways. Even after Anita Hill’s shocking testimony during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991, when senators in both parties seemed to dismiss the issues at hand, Congress remained a government body that looked too much like the Wild West when it came to how men treated women. Kicking out one member won’t solve the bigger problem of the culture and lack of rules that govern Capitol Hill with regards to sexual relations.
The question America now faces is whether it has reached a moment of reckoning, when institutions such as Congress finally take seriously the problem of sexual harassment and assault, or whether this becomes another Anita Hill moment when the sound and fury quickly fade, and the status quo prevails.