Since 1800, 14 sitting presidents have been formally censored by the Senate or House of Representatives, but only a handful of these official reprimands have been passed by Congress, and the one that arguably stung the most was subsequently “struck out.” folder. .
Censorship is a reprimand issued by one or both houses of Congress, usually directed against one of their own members, but sometimes directed at other elected officials, federal judges and even the President of the United States. The word “censorship” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution, but Congress derives its disciplinary power from Article I, Section 5, which reads as follows:
“Each Chamber can determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior and, with the agreement of two thirds, expel a member.”
Note that Article I, Section 5, explicitly gives Congress only the power to censor or otherwise punish its own members, not the President. Thus, any censure resolution passed by Congress against a sitting president does not carry the weight of the law. Such proclamations, if adopted, only communicate the “meaning” of the Senate or House in response to perceived presidential misconduct.
The impeachment process, briefly described in Article II, Section 4, is the only real mechanism for Congress to convict a president of “treason, corruption or other serious crimes and misdemeanors” and remove him from office.
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Presidents censored by Congress
Even though Congress lacks the clear constitutional authority to censor a president, lawmakers have used censure resolutions as a way to label political opponents as corrupt.
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), 12 sitting presidents were censored by the Senate or House through a resolution, and only four of those resolutions were passed by majority. Two other Speakers were censored by other means, most notably a House committee report and an amendment to an unrelated resolution.
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The four presidents censured by an adopted resolution were Andrew Jackson (1834), James Buchanan (1860), Abraham Lincoln (1864) and William Howard Taft (1912).
The other 10 presidents who were the target of congressional censures that were ultimately never passed (several times in some cases) were John Adams (1800), John Tyler (1842), James K. Polk (1848), Ulysses S. Grant (1871), Harry S. Truman (1952), Richard M. Nixon (1972, 1973, 1974), William J. Clinton (1998, 1999), George W. Bush (2005, 2006, 2007), Barack Obama (2013, 2014, 2016) and Donald Trump (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020).
The word “censorship” did not begin to appear in censorship resolutions until after Nixon and the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. Prior to that, Congress favored terms such as “unconstitutional”, “usurpation” , “Unauthorized”, “abuse of power”, “violation” or “derogation” according to the CRS.
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Andrew Jackson protested his censorship
Of the 14 presidents targeted for censorship, Andrew Jackson received the clearest and strongest rebuke from Congress for the tactics he employed in the so-called “banking war”.
Jackson was passionately opposed to America’s Second Bank, a forerunner of the Federal Reserve, arguing that it benefited wealthy business elites over the common man. When Congress refused to dissolve the bank, Jackson took matters into its own hands.
The Constitution gave the Secretary of the Treasury, not the President, exclusive power to regulate the National Bank. According to Daniel Feller, editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee, Jackson attempted to intimidate his Treasury Secretary, William J. Duane, into withdrawing all government deposits from the bank.
“And to Jackson’s surprise, Duane said, ‘No, I don’t have to, and I’m not going to quit either,’” Feller says. “So Jackson fired him and put in his place an acting Treasury Secretary who immediately ordered the removal of the deposits.”
Henry Clay and other Senate anti-Jacksonians cried foul, and after months of intense debate, the Senate passed Clay’s resolution by a margin of 26 to 20.
“Be it resolved: That the President, at the end of the executive procedure concerning public revenue, assumed authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and the laws, but by derogation from both.”
Jackson responded with a lengthy “executive protest” calling the Senate resolution “totally unauthorized by the Constitution and in violation with all its spirit.” Jackson argued that if he had indeed overstepped his authority, then the legitimate constitutional remedy was impeachment, not censorship.
The Senate ignored Jackson’s protest, calling it “a violation of Senate privileges,” and the censorship remained. But not for long.
By 1837 some of the less-than-loyal Senate Democrats who voted for Jackson’s censorship in 1834 had resigned or had been replaced by die-hard Jacksonians. In the dying days of Jackson’s second term, the Senate made the unprecedented move to remove Jackson’s censorship from Congress’ official record.
“This word ‘erase’ is meaningful,” says Feller. “It was not a repeal. By erasing the resolution, they literally erased it. ”
Feller is not joking. On January 16, 1837, the Secretary of the Senate drew black lines on the resolution in the Journal of the Senate with the words “Struck off by order of the Senate”.
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Censors called for resignation of Nixon and Clinton
The vast majority of presidential censure resolutions have never been voted on in the Senate or House of Representatives and “died” in committee. Among them, notable censors not only berated the president for his behavior, but called on him to resign.
Richard Nixon was the target of a series of congressional censorship following his 1973 dismissal of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox (known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”) during the Watergate investigation. Three of those censors, all from the House of Representatives, said Nixon “should resign,” which he ultimately did on August 9, 1974 to avoid impeachment.
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Bill Clinton has faced similar appeals during the political fallout from lying to Congress about his affair with a White House intern. This time, House officials took the unusual step of drafting a censorship “joint resolution” that, if passed by both the House and the Senate, would require Clinton’s signature to become law. The joint resolution, drafted after Clinton’s impeachment but before his Senate trial, read:
“[B]y signing this law, William Jefferson Clinton acknowledges this censorship and condemnation and voluntarily and commits to: (1) donate $ 500,000 to the Treasury; (2) not to deliver in person an address in a State of the Union; (3) not to participate in fundraising activities for the Democratic Party or for any candidate for public office; and (4) not to hold public office after the end of his term as President. “
The joint resolution never left the Judiciary Committee, and Clinton was acquitted by the Senate on February 12, 1999.