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Cokie Roberts On Expelling Members Of Congress


If Alabama Republican Roy Moore wins a Senate seat and if lawmakers challenge the effort to seat him, it won't be the first time. Moore faces numerous accusations of sexual misconduct, which is why some ask if he'd be let in. Lawmakers have tried to block newly elected members before. In 1985, for example, House Republicans protested the seating of a Democratic lawmaker after a disputed election.


BILL THOMAS: Soon, with only Democrats voting in favor of seating Mr. McCloskey to become a member of the House of Representatives. That's quite a string of coincidences - even for you folks.

INSKEEP: That was Republican Congressman Bill Thomas suggesting it was a purely partisan decision. Democrats had the majority, and the Democrat made it in.

Many of you have questions about how Congress decides who takes a seat and who doesn't. And so we've put those questions to Cokie Roberts who answers your questions every week.

Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Nice to talk to you.

INSKEEP: Good to talk with you. And let's hear the first question.

BOB WOOLLEY: This is Bob Woolley of Asheville, N.C. If Roy Moore wins and Republicans don't want him, wouldn't it be easier to declare him unqualified and refuse him a Senate seat under the Constitution's Article I, Section 5.1 - like they almost did for Reed Smoot long ago - than to expel him under Section 5.2?

ROBERTS: Wow. That's quite a student of the Constitution. Bravo, Bob.

Briefly, the first part of the Section 5 of the document says Congress is judge of its own members and can deny a member a seat by a majority vote. The second part says Congress can expel a member by a two-thirds vote. But in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in the Adam Clayton Powell case that Congress' ability to exclude a member could only be based on the Constitutional requirements of age, residence, citizenship and that a member was duly elected. Presumably, Moore would meet all those criteria, so they would have to seat him.

INSKEEP: And when you say Adam Clayton Powell, of course, that's a congressman who was very controversial in the 1960s. The gentleman also referred to Smoot. Who's that?

ROBERTS: Well, that's a fascinating story. He was sent to the Senate from the new state of Utah in 1903. But immediately, petitions poured in protesting the seating because, Steve - because he was a Mormon. And the Senate seated him but conducted an investigation because more and more petitions just arrived. And after two years, the committee recommended removing him. But the full Senate did vote to keep his seat, and he served for 30 years until he co-authored the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariff bill and was defeated in the Democratic landslide of 1932.

INSKEEP: Oh, he survived to author a bill that was blamed for making the Great Depression worse.


INSKEEP: So we have another question here - this one via Twitter from Jake Barrett, who wants to drill down on something that you just said. You said a simple majority of the Senate could find that Roy Moore, if he were elected, is not entitled to a seat because he was not duly elected. Is there a little more behind that phrase than it seems? Is there a broad definition of that that could be applied?

ROBERTS: I don't think so. I think that if Moore wins the most votes, he will be considered duly elected. And he's obviously over 30, a U.S. citizen, lives in Alabama. So I don't see grounds for excluding him from the Senate.

INSKEEP: So one more question here now from Stefan Edward Jones who asks, I'd also be interested in what it takes to remove a federal court judge.

ROBERTS: It's just like president and vice president. It's impeachment by the House, conviction by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. There have only been 15 impeachments and eight convictions in our history. And I remember covering the trial of Alcee Hastings in 1989, when he was removed from office and then elected to the House that impeached him in 1992. And he's serving still.

INSKEEP: Wow. Cokie, thanks very much as always.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by emailing us at or by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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