Friday, December 15, 2006

Senate Will Not Oust its Own Members

Janet Hook at this morning's Los Angeles Times notes that the U.S. Senate has never forced out one of its own members because of poor health:

Carter Glass was the dean of the U.S. Senate and chairman of its Appropriations Committee when he became incapacitated with heart trouble in the 1940s. The octogenarian was absent from the Capitol for four full years, unable to answer a roll call on the Senate floor, cut off from all visitors by his wife.

Local newspapers began to clamor for his resignation, but the Virginia Democrat refused. His Senate colleagues allowed Glass to keep his seat, and even his powerful chairmanship.

That was more than half a century ago, but it illustrates an enduring tradition in one of the world's most exclusive political clubs: Never has the Senate forced a member out of office because of a physical or mental inability to serve.

That hands-off protocol could be a boon to Democrats as they ponder the possibility that Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) could be incapacitated for months or more after emergency surgery to treat bleeding in his brain. If Johnson dies or leaves office before the new Congress convenes next month, it will erase the Democrats' 51-49 majority and probably return control of the Senate to the Republican Party.

But if he survives and if history is any guide, the only force that will drive Johnson from office before his term expires in 2008 will be a decision by the senator or his family. The Senate — not governors or voters — has the constitutional power to force a member out, but has been loath to use it.

"No one in the Senate wants to have that kind of responsibility for judging whether another member is capable or not," said Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian."The Senate is a family, as well as a club. There's a real sense of sticking together."

There have been a couple examples of House seats being declared vacant because of inability to serve, but they involved cases where lawmakers were elected while incapacitated and were unable to take their seats....

Infirm politicians are able to linger in the halls of Congress in part because they are surrounded by armies of aides who can obscure a distressing reality, both to the public and the politician.

Former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who turned 100 while still in office, was so frail at the end of his career that he could hardly walk onto the Senate floor without gripping the arms of staff members."They made sure he showed up to vote, and that's what counted," Ritchie said.

But history is replete with examples of infirm lawmakers who could not even show up to vote, talk or maintain consciousness — and yet were allowed to keep their seats.

One of the examples Hook cites is that of anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who was beaten with a cane on the floor of the Senate by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina in 1856. Brooks resigned his seat in Congress after a House vote on his expulsion failed. Sumner didn't return to the Senate for three years, and was reelected to his post by the Massachusetts legislature.

According to Roger Davidson and Walter Oleszek, in their book, Congress and Its Members, the Sumner beating took place back in the days when politics in the Capitol was rough and tumble, when duels between legislators were not uncommon. The norms of civility have evolved over time to create a generous institutional decorum in the Congress. That decorum will be sorely needed come January, should the Democrats not be able to take over as the majority party in the Senate.

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