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Can a member of Congress be impeached like the president?

The Constitution states that the President, Vice President and 'all civil Officers of the United States can be impeached,' but does that include Congress?
Credit: Associated Press
This July 16, 2019, file photo shows the Capitol Dome in Washington.

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — The fallout from the sex trafficking investigation against Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz only seemed to widen Friday with the resignation of his spokesperson.

Gaetz, 38, vehemently denied all allegations against him and declared he had no intention to resign from office.

RELATED: Gaetz finding few Republican defenders amid sex trafficking probe

However, California Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu urged Gaetz to be removed from the Judiciary Committee, the committee that oversees the Justice Department. 

However, that is by no means the heaviest penalty the House can give a representative accused of misconduct.

RELATED: NYT: Federal inquiry of Rep. Matt Gaetz focused on payments made to women

With impeachment still fresh in people's minds, some may be wondering can members of Congress be impeached?

To answer this question, we have to first read what rules the Constitution lays out about impeachments and removal from office.

In Article II, Section 4, which deals with the Executive Branch of the government, the Constitution says:

"The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

The Constitution also states in Article I, which discusses the Legislative Branch, the only the House may impeach a public official and only the Senate may try an impeached public official with the worst possible punishment being removal from office and possible disqualification from holding office again.

While the term "civil Officers" is a broad term, in Section II, the Constitution says the President, "[...] shall Commission all the Officers of the United States." As Congress is elected rather than commissioned by the President, they are not considered civil officers, according to Constitution Annotated. 

This matter was an issue early in the country's history when Sen. William Blount became the first person in U.S. history to be impeached in 1797, according to the U.S. Senate. Blount, a senator from Tennessee with implicated in a conspiracy to help Britain gain control of Florida and the Louisiana Territory in an affair that became known as the Blount Conspiracy. 

In July, Blount was indeed impeached by the House of Representatives, becoming the first person in American history to be impeached, though the Senate separately expelled Blount only a few days later, a process separate from impeachment.

Blount's attorneys argued 1) Blount did not qualify as a civil officer under the constitution and 2) Blount was not able to be tried by the Senate as he had already been expelled. The impeachment was dismissed by the Senate in 1799 because of a lack of jurisdiction, according to the U.S. Senate. However, the vote to dismiss the case was close (14-11), and the resolution did not define the grounds on which the Senate lacked jurisdiction. 

Still, the Blount case set the precedent that members of Congress could not be impeached as they did not qualify as civil officers. However, this does not mean members of Congress cannot be removed from office.

In Article 2, Section 5 of the Constitution, both the House and Senate "may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member." 

The Constitution does not set any crimes or guidelines for which punishment a member of Congress should receive, and the severity of the member's punishment is left completely up to the House or Senate, depending on which House the Congressman or Congresswoman is elected to, according to EveryCRSReport.com.

The responsibility to punishment is left to each house's ethics committee. Both committees are equally split between Democrats and Republicans. The House has five members from each party, while the Senate has three members from each part.

In both houses, a legislator facing misconduct allegations could face reprimand, censure or expulsion, as well as other privileges like being removed from a committee, according to EveryCRSReport.com. However, expulsion is the only punishment the Constitution specifically requires a minimum vote of a two-thirds majority.

While expulsion has happened, it is extremely rare. In fact, only 20 people have been expelled from Congress. Of that, 17 were removed for supporting the Confederacy. 

The reason expulsion is so rare is that members of Congress facing typically resign before they are expelled or the House or Senate will censor the senator or representative because it only needs a simple majority to pass, according to EveryCRSReport.com. 

So while members of Congress can be removed from office, it is precedent that they cannot be impeached. Furthermore, it is much easier for a single house to vote to expel a member of Congress than for the House to vote to impeach, and then the Senate to hold a trial and vote to remove.