Since 1800, 14 sitting presidents have faced censure by either the Senate or the House of Representatives, but only a handful of those official rebukes were ever adopted by Congress, and the one that arguably stung the most was later “expunged” from the record.
A censure is a reprimand issued by one or both chambers of Congress usually directed at one of their own members, but occasionally it targets other elected officials, federal judges and even the President of the United States. The word “censure” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Constitution, but Congress derives its disciplinary power from Article I, Section 5, which reads:
“Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.”
Notice that Article I, Section 5 only explicitly gives Congress the authority to censure or otherwise punish its own members, not the president. So any censure resolution passed by Congress against a sitting president does not carry the weight of law. Such proclamations, if adopted, merely communicate the “sense of” the Senate or House in response to a perceived presidential misdeed.
The impeachment process, briefly outlined in Article II, Section 4, is Congress’s only true mechanism to convict a president of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” and remove him or her from office.
Presidents Censured by Congress
Even though Congress lacks clear constitutional authority to censure a president, lawmakers have used censure resolutions as a way to brand political opponents as corrupt.
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), 12 sitting presidents have been censured by the Senate or House through a resolution, and only four of those resolutions were adopted by a majority vote. An additional two presidents were censured by other means, specifically a House committee report and an amendment to an unrelated resolution.
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The other 10 presidents who were targets of congressional censures that were ultimately never adopted (multiple times in some cases) were John Adams (1800), John Tyler (1842), James K. Polk (1848), Ulysses S. Grant (1871), Harry S. Truman (1952), Richard M. Nixon (1972, 1973, 1974), William J. Clinton (1998, 1999), George W. Bush (2005, 2006, 2007), Barack Obama (2013, 2014, 2016) and Donald Trump (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020).
The actual word “censure” didn’t start appearing in censure resolutions until Nixon and the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. Before that, Congress favored language like “unconstitutional,” “usurp,” “unauthorized,” “abuse of power,” “violation,” or “derogation” according to the CRS.
Andrew Jackson Protested His Censure
Of the 14 presidents targeted for censure, Andrew Jackson received the clearest and strongest congressional reprimand for tactics he employed in the so-called “Bank War.”
Jackson was vehemently opposed to the Second Bank of the United States, a congressionally chartered private commercial bank that functioned as the national bank, arguing that it benefited wealthy business elites over the common man. Jackson first vetoed an extension of the bank’s charter in 1832 and then sought to withdraw all federal dollars from the bank.
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The issue was that the bank's charter gave the Secretary of the Treasury, not the president, exclusive power to regulate the national bank. According to Daniel Feller, editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson at the University of Tennessee, Jackson tried to bully his treasury secretary, William J. Duane, to remove the money.
“And much to Jackson’s astonishment, Duane said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it, and I’m not going to quit either,’” says Feller. “So Jackson fired him and put in his place an interim Secretary of the Treasury who immediately ordered the removal of the deposits.”
Henry Clay and other anti-Jacksonians in the Senate cried foul, and after months of intense debate the Senate adopted Clay’s resolution by a margin of 26 to 20. It read:
“Resolved: That the President, in the late Executive proceedings in relation to the public revenue, has assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both.”
Jackson responded with a lengthy “Executive protest” calling the Senate resolution “wholly unauthorized by the Constitution, and in derogation of its entire spirit.” Jackson argued that if he had indeed overstepped his authority, then the rightful constitutional remedy was impeachment, not a censure.
The Senate ignored Jackson’s protest, calling it “a breach of the privileges of the Senate,” and the censure stuck. But not for long.
By 1837, some of the less-than-loyal Senate Democrats who had voted for Jackson’s censure in 1834 had resigned or been replaced by diehard Jacksonians. In the final days of Jackson’s second term, the Senate took the unprecedented step of expunging Jackson’s censure from the official congressional record.
“That word ‘expunge’ is significant,” says Feller. “This wasn’t a repeal. By expunging the resolution, they literally blotted it out.”
Feller isn’t joking. On January 16, 1837, the Secretary of the Senate drew black lines over the resolution in the Senate Journal with the words, “Expunged by order of the Senate.”
Censures Called for Resignation of Nixon and Clinton
The vast majority of presidential censure resolutions were never brought to vote on the floor of the Senate or House of Representatives and “died” in committee. Notable among them were censures that not only rebuked the president for his behavior, but called for him to step down.
Richard Nixon was the target of a slew of congressional censures following his 1973 firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox (known as the “Saturday Night Massacre”) during the Watergate investigation. Three of those censures, all from the House of Representatives, said that Nixon “should resign,” which he ultimately did on August 9, 1974 to avoid impeachment.
Bill Clinton faced similar calls during the political fallout from lying to Congress about his affair with a White House intern. This time, representatives in the House took the unusual step of drafting a “joint resolution” of censure that, if passed by both the House and Senate, would require Clinton’s own signature to become law. The joint resolution, which was drafted after Clinton was impeached, but before his Senate trial, read:
“[B]y his signature on this Act, William Jefferson Clinton acknowledges this censure and condemnation and voluntarily undertakes and binds himself to: (1) make a donation of $500,000 to the Treasury; (2) not deliver in person any State of the Union address; (3) not be involved in fund raising activities for the Democratic Party or for any candidate for public office; and (4) not serve in public office after his term as President is completed.”
The joint resolution never left the Judiciary Committee and Clinton was acquitted by the Senate on February 12, 1999.