It’s not surprising that the House has impeached only three presidents, four counting Richard Nixon’s resignation before his inevitable impeachment. Nor is it surprising that the Senate has never convicted a president on impeachment charges. Removing a president from office is a drastic action that should be used sparingly. But it is remarkable how rarely the House or Senate has censured a president.
The only time the Senate censured a president was in 1834 with Andrew Jackson. The House has reprimanded two more presidents, John Tyler in 1842 and James Buchanan in 1860. Since then, however, whenever Congress considered censure, as it did with Bill Clinton in 1998 and Donald Trump in 2017-2019, legislators have declined to act.
It’s odd that Congress has used its censure power at about the same rate as its impeachment power, and that in recent decades, it has decided to impeach more often than to censure. Usually, mild sanctions are imposed much more often than severe sanctions. For example, misdemeanor prosecutions outnumber felony prosecutions by an estimated ratio of 4-1.
True, the Constitution does not specify a power to censure (as it does impeachment). But the Constitution does recognize the power of Congress to pass resolutions, and that power can easily encompass presidential censures.
With censure, Congress could respond to a president’s misconduct more quickly, without waiting for it to reach the level of a high crime or misdemeanor. And that should have a deterrent effect on presidents who are inclined to abuse their power. In addition, a censure would not have the effect of “undoing an election,” making it less problematic and more likely to overcome partisan loyalties to the president.
Presidential censures should not be adopted lightly, but they do deserve a greater role in the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.