Color me surprised that it took this long for this option to emerge. The Hill reports that House Democrats have begun considering a step short of impeachment to “put a permanent mark” on Donald Trump’s record without taking the risk of infuriating voters:
House Democrats are eyeing a move to censure President Trump as a possible alternative to impeaching a president they have accused of gross wrongdoing while in office. …
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who’s calling for immediate censure of Trump, said it would send a warning to future administrations that Congress won’t sit idle in the face of presidential malfeasance.
And unlike impeachment, which requires overwhelming Senate support, the Democratic-controlled House could censure Trump without a single Republican on board.
“The advantage of that is it can be done with the House,” he said. “We can hold the president accountable and say that his actions are unethical, and he’s engaged in blatant misconduct and that there can be some accountability for future presidents.”
“It’s a permanent mark on the president’s record,” Khanna added.
To be fair, it may only seem that it’s taken a long time for this option to get some consideration. The Mueller report has only been out six weeks or so; before Mueller found no evidence of collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, it would have been premature to consider censure instead of impeachment. Democrats expected Mueller to hand them articles of impeachment tied up in a neat bow. Now that they have to work hard at making a case — if they can at all — other options may be worth considering.
Like impeachment, censure also has a 1998 precedent. As Republicans pressed forward on impeachment against Bill Clinton, Democrats raised the possibility of censure as a reasonable compromise. The group MoveOn formed to promote that option — to “censure President Clinton and move on.” Republicans dismissed the idea, and later regretted it when their impeachment failed to win removal by the Senate. The blowback from impeachment might be a little overstated these days, but not by a whole lot. Clinton soared in the polls, his voters turned out in droves to punish Republicans in the midterms, and everyone learned a lesson about gaining a broad bipartisan consensus before considering impeachment. Or so we thought.
The upside for censure, as Khanna points out, is that the House can do it on its own. The Senate can certainly pass its own censure resolution if it so chooses, but it’s not terribly likely to do so with a Republican majority. Since it doesn’t require a trial or potential removal, it stands on its own as a “sense of the House” resolution that Trump is guilty of whatever they put in the censure. It’s easy with a Democratic majority, and it’s relatively clean.
The downsides, however, might outweigh the upsides. First, a censure has no practical effect on a president. Censuring a House member means forcing them to stand on the floor while the censure resolution is read aloud, an embarrassing if temporary punishment for whatever wrongdoing prompted it. John Avlon called Charlie Rangel’s censure over ethical violations a “symbolic shaming,” which only has an impact if the target has any sense of shame. Rangel didn’t — he ran for re-election three more times and won handily, including that same year — and neither does Trump.
More importantly for both sides of the impeachment debate within Nancy Pelosi’s caucus, censure would impose closure on all Mueller-related issues. Voters already see the Mueller report as closure; a censure by the House would amplify the move on demand. That would shut down many, if not most, of the House’s investigations into Trump, including into his personal finances. Pelosi might see that as desirable, in that it would force her caucus to get back to legislating, but a lot of her members want those investigations for electoral purposes in 2020. In that sense, censure would be a true exit ramp, one that closes off any more action, politically speaking.
The solution to that would be to put off censure until after the investigations make more progress. However, that might not happen at all, thanks to efforts to claim executive privilege and tie up subpoenas in the courts. The closer a censure gets to Election Day, the more nakedly political it looks, too. A censure in 2019 might be more effective at applying that “permanent mark” than a censure in 2020. The question of when to pull the trigger depends on how much is left to investigate — and the rapidly closing window of opportunity for bipartisan legislation in this session.
Nevertheless, Khanna’s suggestion is probably the safest and smartest course for Democrats in the wake of the Mueller letdown. Just ask the 1998 Republicans who had reason to regret their rash course to a partisan impeachment.