When a member of the U.S. House of Representatives commits some sort of misconduct, the House is empowered to formally censure that member, holding a public hearing devoted to airing out their misdeeds. When will it censure Dennis Hastert, the former speaker who admitted today to sexually abusing children?
Over the years, the House has issued censures to 23 representatives, for conduct as mild as using “unparliamentary language,” and as severe as bribery, selling appointments, and, in the case of Lovell Rousseau, breaking his cane over the face of another member in 1866. Censure, like legislative canings, has fallen out of popularity a bit since the 19th Century, but not entirely: New York Congressman Charlie Rangel was censured for not paying taxes, using his congressional office for fundraising, and other transgressions just six years ago.
Rangel’s censure, video of which is available for your viewing pleasure here, offers a look at what a censure for Hastert might look like. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker at the time, read a brief statement on the floor, and Rangel was compelled to sit and listen to it. That’s it. Censuring is, as the Christian Science Monitor wrote at the time, “a form of public shaming,” and a pretty mild one at that. Surely, if Rangel deserves it for playing fast and loose with his money, Hastert deserves it for molesting his students.
A censure would be the perfect move for Congress to make against Hastert. He’s going to jail for banking fraud, but thanks to the Illinois statute of limitations, he will not technically face criminal punishment for child abuse. Censuring Hastert wouldn’t subject him to more jail time or any other punishment, but it would at least make it a matter of historical Congressional record that his crimes were worse than paying out hush money.
“But!” you say, “Rangel was, and still is, an active congressman. Hastert retired in 2007.” Yes, but the House has censured former members before. In 1870, as the Congressional Research Service notes, members censured Representatives Benjamin Whittemore and John T. DeWasse just after both men had resigned.
“But!” you continue, “Hastert is only accused of abusing kids while he was a gym teacher and wrestling coach, years before he was elected to the House. Can they really censure him for something he did way back then?” Yes they can! In 1873, Representatives Oakes Ames and James Brooks were both censured for “conduct prior to election to the House.” Unlike sex abuse in Illinois, congressional censure does not seem to carry a statute of limitations.
The House could also issue Hastert a formal written reprimand, which does not include a public hearing. (This would also be a good option if Hastert is in jail and unable to appear when they make the vote.) They’ve done it for far less serious issues, and recently, too: Joe Wilson got one just for yelling at the president in 2009, and Barney Frank got one in 1990 for a scandal involving traffic tickets.
But censure would seem to be the least they could do. Hastert led the House for longer than any other member of his party, he continues to be acclaimed to this day by some of his colleagues, his name is attached to ‘the Hastert rule,’ which his party still observes, and he’s part of the institution’s legacy—it can and should formally reject him for his crimes.
Paul Ryan’s press secretary declined to comment on whether he would hold a vote to censure Hastert.