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September 20, 2014

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If history is any indicator, John Ensign unlikely to be expelled

Sen. John Ensign

Sen. John Ensign

The last time the Senate voted to expel one of its own was during the Civil War — the Club of 100 prefers instead to let voters decide whether lawmakers should stay or go.

But that’s not to say Republican Sen. John Ensign has nothing to fear from the Senate Ethics Committee investigation of his actions.

The six-member committee has various avenues shy of expulsion to register the institution’s displeasure with a colleague’s behavior, and none of them is good.

If the current preliminary inquiry expands to a full-blown investigation, there could be public, televised hearings. And a public censure or other rebuke from the committee would make running for reelection difficult.

Because it often takes months, even years, for the committee to decide a case, and the work is highly secretive, as required by its rules, senators under investigation live in political limbo as their political fortunes are deliberated.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she doesn’t expect an outcome in the Ensign case for at least nine months.

Sloan’s group filed ethics complaints with both the committee and the FBI asking for inquiries into Ensign’s affair with his then-campaign treasurer, Cynthia Hampton, the $96,000 his parents paid to her family and his efforts to find a lobbying job for her husband, Doug Hampton, also a former staffer, after the couple left his employment.

Among the potential misdeeds, Sloan suggests Ensign violated federal law by conspiring with Doug Hampton to skirt the one-year ban on former staff members lobbying their bosses. Hampton told The New York Times he and Ensign were aware of the rule, but ignored it.

Ensign, who has said he did nothing wrong and will cooperate with any official investigation, plans to remain in office.

Donald A. Ritchie, an associate Senate historian, said the committee has various ways of dealing with colleagues facing ethical questions — from private letters admonishing senators to public votes.

After conducting a preliminary inquiry, which is under way in the Ensign case, the committee could decide to drop the matter or pursue a full investigation.

If it determines there were violations, the committee could reprimand the senator, as it did last year to Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, for his arrest in an airport men’s restroom sex sting, and Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, for meddling in the firing of his state’s U.S. attorney.

The committee could also recommend that the full Senate vote to reprimand the senator or take other actions. Former Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, for example, was censured in 1954 by a full vote of the Senate.

Such actions require a simple majority vote in the Senate, but do not strip senators of their ability to serve. McCarthy remained in office until his death several years later.

“None of this is carved in stone,” Ritchie noted.

The lawyer for one senator, he said, persuaded the Ethics Committee to denounce him rather than issue a censure. The senator didn’t want the same tag McCarthy got.

Ritchie added that the committee typically defers to the courts or law enforcement if other investigations are under way.

“They have incredible latitude on what to do when they do it,” the historian said.

Expelling a senator requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate, as spelled out in the Constitution.

But senators have often resisted being dismissed by their peers, preferring to resign rather than endure the spectacle of a floor vote on their political futures.

The most recent two senators facing imminent expulsion votes, Oregon Republican Sen. Robert Packwood in 1995 (repeated sexual misconduct) and New Jersey Democrat Sen. Harrison Williams in 1982 (the Abscam bribery scandal), stepped aside before their colleagues could give them the boot.

The last expulsions were in 1862 for a string of senators who supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Sloan, a former federal prosecutor, has been critical of the Ethics Committee, which she says is too cozy with senators and does not do its job. She said she has more confidence in law enforcement.

“I am more hopeful about the FBI,” she said on KNPR’s “State of Nevada” public affairs program.

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