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A brief history of House discipline

The AP reports that Rep. Charlie Rangel is attempting to hammer out a settlement in the ethics case against him, an agreement that would spare him a lengthy trial this fall. According to the AP's report, the settlement would require Rangel to admit that he committed some ethical misconduct.

It's not clear what the terms of the settlement might be or what exactly the ethics panel's charges entail.

But Congress does have a series of protocols that it has historically used to discipline members found to have seriously violated House rules. Republicans attempted to use one of these methods early in the Rangel inquiry, offering a rare motion to "censure" the House Ways and Means Chairman shortly after Rangel called for an ethics probe of himself in July 2008. That motion was shelved by a vote of 254-138.

Here’s a look at the kinds of disciplinary measures that the House has used over the past 200 years:

In addition to punishing its own members for any criminal or civil charges against them, the House is authorized to discipline members for “disorderly Behavior” under Section 5 of the First Article of the Constitution, according to the Congressional Research Service.

While it is possible for the House to vote to expel one of their own, it’s very rare. Expulsion requires a two-thirds vote of the body’s 435 members. Only five congressmen have ever been expelled from the House; the most recent ousting, in 2002, was that of the outlandish Ohio Rep. Jim Trafficant, who went on to serve seven years in prison for corruption and racketeering. In 1980, Rep. Michael Myers of Pennsylvania was ousted after a bribery charge related to the ABSCAM scandal. Three Southern congressmen were ejected for “taking up arms against the United States” in 1861.

More common than expulsion votes are “censures” and “reprimands,” which only require a majority vote.

A total of 22 members of Congress have been subject to a “censure” since the 1830s. A perusal of the list shows that most of those took place during the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction era, with several members punished for “unparliamentary language.” (For example: Rep. Fernando Wood – who, like Rangel, was a New York Democrat who served as Chairman of the Ways and Means committee – was censured in 1868 for calling a piece of legislation “a bill without a name, a child without a name and probably without a father, a monstrosity, a measure the most infamous of the many infamous acts of this infamous Congress.”)

In 1983, Reps. Gerry Studds of Massachusetts and Daniel Crane of Illinois were censured after admitting to having sexual relationships with teenage pages.

The formal vote of censure usually includes the requirement that the accused member must stand at the “well” of the House chamber to be verbally chastised by the Speaker of the House. After the vote itself, however, there are no specifically mandated consequences for those who have been censured.

Less severe than a “censure” is a “reprimand,” a disciplinary action that has been used since the 1970s, generally to register disapproval related to charges related to abuse of political influence or failure to accurately report campaign contributions. The major difference between a “censure” and a “reprimand” – terms that were often used interchangeably before the 1970s – is that a reprimand usually does not involve a verbal admonishment by the Speaker.

Eight members of Congress have been reprimanded. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich was reprimanded in 1997 after the Ethics Committee determined that he improperly used tax-exempt money for political purposes and supplied inaccurate information to the panel investigating the matter. Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts also received a reprimand in 1990 for fixing over 30 parking tickets and trying to influence probation officers on behalf of a male prostitute.