Little to No Precedent for Forcibly Unseating Incapacitated Senators
by Jonathan Singer, Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 07:38:02 AM EST
Doint a little googling last night, reader robliberal landed on an important article written five years ago by NPR political junkie Ken Rudin for The Washington Post that shows there is little to no precedent for forcibly unseating a member of Congress due to illness or other incapacitation.
Question: I know that U.S. Senators have resigned for health or other reasons, but has one ever been removed from office because he/she was physically incapacitated or unable to discharge the duties of the office for health-related reasons?
- Myra Sletson, Rebersburg, Penn.
No. The only way the Senate can remove a member is by a vote to expel, and there has never been any desire to do that for a health-related cause. Sen. Karl Mundt (R-S.D.) suffered a debilitating stroke in 1969 but refused to resign and stayed in office until his term expired in January 1973 - although he never showed up for work following his infirmity. Republicans pressured Mundt to step down shortly before the 1970 elections, when it appeared the GOP was going to lose the governorship, and with it their ability to appoint a Senate successor. There was never talk of a motion to expel, though the Republican Conference eventually did strip him of his committee assignments. In November of that year, a Democrat was elected governor, so the Republicans who were urging Mundt's resignation turned to hoping he would serve until his term expired.
There were other, similar situations. Rep. John Grotberg (R-Ill.) lapsed into a coma in January 1986 after participation in an experimental program for his colon cancer caused him to have a heart seizure. His family and staff refused to consider resignation, and the House took no action. He even won re-nomination to the House in the March GOP primary that year, but his family finally relented and announced he would not run again. He remained a member of the House until his death in November 1986.
In the spring of 1964, Sen. Clair Engle (D-Calif.) was dying of brain cancer, but refused Democratic entreaties to resign. In June, when the Senate voted to break the filibuster that had stymied the civil rights bill, the dying Engle was wheeled onto the Senate floor to vote for cloture by motioning with his hand. He died a month later.
In the spring of 1943, Sen. Carter Glass (D-Va.) was 85 years old, in poor health and simply stopped coming to work. He died in May of 1946, still a senator but no longer a visitor to Capitol Hill. And according to Sen. Robert Byrd's (D-W.Va.) invaluable book of Senate historical statistics, Sen. James Grimes (R-Iowa) suffered a stroke in 1869 and remained in office as an invalid until his death in February of 1872. But there was no move in the Senate to declare any of the aforementioned seats vacant.
The only instance I can think of where lawmakers took action involved Gladys Spellman of Maryland. The Democratic House member suffered a massive heart attack in October of 1980 while campaigning that left her in a semi-conscious, coma-like state from which she never emerged. She won re-election with ease, but once it was determined that there was no prospect for recovery, the House voted to declare the seat vacant in February 1981.
The folks at Fox News may be salivating over the possibility of declaring Senator Johnson -- whose situation we still know very little about, and thus speculation is extremely hasty -- unfit to serve, but it seems rather clear: There is strong precedent for Congress moving very slowly before unseating one of their members for health reasons, more often than not allowing members to serve at their own discretion rather than using the power of Congress to enact their will.