Nowhere in the Constitution—and this is excellent news for freshly sworn-in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.)—does it stipulate that a House member must have the mental capacity to cook on all four burners.
This is in keeping with the Framers’ general idea that only the lowest bars should be set for officeholders. They declined to cordon off Congress with credential and qualification roadblocks, stating in Article I, section 2, clause 2 that House members need only be 25 years old or older and U.S. citizen for at least seven years. This left plenty of room for the daft, the moonstruck, the brainsick, the rabble-rousing and the witless to run for the seats. And they have, often gaining office, as Rep. Greene recently did, to the horror of many.
As CNN, the Washington Post, POLITICO and a score of other outlets have reported, Greene is a shambles of a human being. She subscribes to or has promoted an awful bunch of irrational and absurd ideas and positions, so irrational and absurd that you’d be doing her a favor by calling them merely “fringe.” She has trafficked in false QAnon claims of a global pedophilic-satanic cabal involving top Democrats and Hollywood celebrities; she “liked” a comment suggesting the Parkland school massacre was a “false flag” operation and asserted much the same about the Sandy Hook killings; she appeared to support the executions of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi (also accusing Pelosi of treason); suggested the Las Vegas shooting was part of a plot to abolish the Second Amendment; claimed the 2020 presidential election was stolen; and asserted the 2018 midterms, in which Democrats took the House, represented “an Islamic invasion of our government.” On Jan. 21, shortly after Joe Biden took the oath, Greene filed, as she had promised, articles of impeachment against him. Her articles of impeachment won’t go anywhere, but they gave us a pocket preview of her flagpole-sitting skills.
And that’s just for starters. Greene has said many more ugly and stupid things. Called out for these offenses, she has mounted the lame defense that some of the social media postings and statements came before she ran for Congress, when “teams of people” had managed her accounts, so they really shouldn’t count against her. Don’t for a minute think she’s apologizing, but she has now deleted dozens of them.
Greene’s ramblings have predictably led to demands by several members of Congress, including one who names her as a verbal accomplice in the Jan. 6 insurrection, that Congress should expel her for her transgressions. “This woman should be on a watch list. Not in Congress,” Hillary Clinton tweeted this week.
The Constitution gives the House wide latitude to expel members for violating its rules, breaking the law or engaging in “disorderly behavior.” Without a doubt, Capitol Hill would be a saner, more civil place if Greene were catapulted from her seat back to Georgia, where she came from. The House has used this power sparingly, giving three members the boot in 1861 for supporting the Confederacy and two more recently after they were convicted on criminal charges of bribery. Expulsion, which takes a two-thirds majority vote, isn’t the only punishment the House can mete out. It can censure a member with a simple majority, forcing her to stand in session and listen to her colleagues rebuke, or otherwise reprimand her. A host of representatives and senators have suffered the shame of censure or reprimand for their conduct since the establishment of Congress.
You may recall the official congressional rebuke Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) received after shouting, “You lie,” during President Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address. Wilson is still in the House, but not so Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who was given a pass for many years despite his frequent racist utterances and white-nationalist sentiments. His political end came in January 2019 when he questioned aloud why “white nationalism” and “white supremacism” were held in low regard. Both parties turned on him, with the Republican Steering Committee yanking all of his committee assignments. King ran for reelection in 2020 but was beaten in the primary by a state senator who had the backing of national and state party forces who wanted King gone for obvious reasons.
What treatment does Greene deserve? Congress has avoided the nuclear option of expulsion over the years, preferring instead to coax misbehaving members into resigning or not running again. By avoiding expulsion, Congress seems to have endorsed the idea that feral congresscritters like Greene are not their problem but one that belongs to the voters. It’s up to them, not other legislators, to swing the disciplinary rod by voting them out of office, as they ultimately did Steve King. (The Constitution does not allow for the recall of senators and representatives by voters.) In a case like Greene’s, where she appears to have broken no laws—notice the craft in her statement where she avoided directly saying that somebody should be murdered—and so far has not violated any congressional rules, it seems like Congress will bow to tradition and let the voters police her speech. This means we’ll have to wait until 2022 for resolution, when voters get their opportunity to hit the ejection button.
But will Georgia voters can Greene? Probably not. Her district is overwhelmingly Republican, and thanks to an endorsement by Donald Trump she won her Republican primary run-off handily in 2020 and obliterated her general election opponent, who unofficially withdrew. CNN visited her district on Thursday and interviewed voters who still support her. That support appears to run deep. As the New Yorker reported in the fall, Greene represents a bright-red part of Georgia that a generation ago repeatedly sent Larry McDonald to Congress. McDonald did not merchandise the same weirdo politics as Greene does, but he came close. He was a John Birch Society official and espoused the Bircher agenda of pervasive communist conspiracies for his entire political career. He regarded Francisco Franco a hero and said Martin Luther King Jr. was “wedded to violence.” He operated his own spy operation, “Western Goals,” on which attorney Roy Cohn sat. Investigative columnist Jack Anderson probably said it best when he called McDonald a “bush-league McCarthy.” Georgia probably would have continued sending McDonald to Washington had he not been on the Korean Airlines Flight 007 the Soviets shot down in 1983.
When you think about it, censure or reprimand can be more damaging to a House member than outright expulsion. An expelled member can stick it to Congress by running again and winning their vacated seat, something Greene could very well do, thereby daring the House to disrespect voters by kicking her out again. But censure and reprimand impose on members the stink of living death. Congress bestows the greatest legislative power on members who know how to work with other members, who can deal and trade and wheedle. Lone wolves who have been censured can continue to walk the halls of Congress, but fewer and fewer members choose to have anything to do with them. Journalists, sensing their powerlessness, tend to ignore them, too, except to file stories about how pathetic they are. Like being stripped of committee positions, censure and reprimand diminish an individual member’s power to almost zero, leaving them with little more than the power to boss a staff around, collect a paycheck, stage fundraisers, command a bully pulpit (on the hope that someone will listen), and use franking privileges.
Serving without power as a zombie congresswoman could actually appeal to Greene. She could easily shrug off the shame of censure, reprimand and loss of her committee assignment without missing a beat. Until the party rebukes her—a party that remains loyal to Trump—she just might have a lock on her seat.
None of this is to suggest that Greene’s loose talk can’t or won’t continue to pose pain and anguish for her targets or that it won’t upset the legislative biome. Such injuries to our political system don’t disappear overnight. We rid ourselves of a dangerous demagogue in chief, after all, and his orations are still stirring misery and violence. But neither should we oversell the peril Greene presents. She’s only one member in a sea of representatives and senators with nothing in her portfolio but a seat on the House education and labor committee, a seat she’ll probably lose as the campaign against her gathers force. (On Friday, the Republican Jewish Coalition savaged Greene for her anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about fire-starting Jewish space lasers—really!—and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., announced she would be moving her congressional office away from Greene’s after a shouting match between the two.) If we survived Larry McDonald’s multiple terms served without collapsing into a fascist state, why then can’t we outlast Greene, too? It won’t be easy, but it will be smarter to keep an eye on her and wait her out than to make a political martyr out of her via expulsion.
The next time a Greene statement or post makes you sick with fright, look on the bright side. Her status as a member of the House should also remind us of how open the American political process is—so open and accessible that even somebody as perilously meshuga as Greene can win a seat in Congress. Greene is the necessary and awful price we pay for our faith in democracy.
What was it Sen. Roman Hruska said in 1970 when people called Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell mediocre? “There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers,” Hruska said. “They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they? We can’t have all Brandeises and Frankfurters and Cardozos.” There are a lot of nutty people in America who demand representation, too! The Constitution is so loosey-goosey about House membership that members need not even reside in the district they represent. Living in the state suffices. So what congressional seat should my RSS feed run for? My email alerts? My Twitter feed? Send advice and campaign pledges (no donations, please!) to [email protected].
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