1893 Senate Expulsion Debate

In 1893, the Senate considered the question of whether it could expel a member for pre-Senate conduct.

The conduct in question was that of William N. Roach, a senator from the state of North Dakota. Roach was charged with "certain criminal offenses, committed while cashier or officer of a bank in the city of Washington."

The allegations first appeared in newspapers on March 15, 1893. The Senate did not acknowledge them until March 28, when George F. Hoar, a senator from the state of Massachusetts, introduced a resolution directing the Committee on Privileges and Elections (Hoar was a member of the panel) to investigate the matter.

On April 10, Senator Hoar introduced a second resolution reflecting an agreement between Hoar and his colleagues on the committee. The new resolution directed the Committee on Privileges and Elections to investigate the allegations made against Roach for the purpose of determining the "power and duty of the Senate" in the matter.

During the Senate's consideration of this resolution, Arthur Pue Gorman, a senator form the state of Maryland, offered alternative language. The Gorman resolution directed the Committee on Privileges and Elections "to inquire into and consider the question whether the Senate has authority or jurisdiction to investigate charges made against a Senator as to conduct or offenses occurring or committed prior to his election, not relating to his duty as Senator or affecting the integrity of his election."

Gorman's resolution reflected a disagreement between senators (principally between Democrats and Republicans) over the limits of Senate power to investigate and punish pre-Senate conduct on the part of its members.

(Note: Senators did not consider whether it was appropriate for them to expel a member for pre-Senate conduct that was known to the voters, the state legislators at the time, before the election.)

The Senate debated these questions for two days on April 14 and 15. Despite extensive debate, senators eventually dropped the matter without definitely answering them.

The debate is informative for two reasons. First, it includes an extensive review of the available precedents from the British House of Commons, the House of Representatives, and the Senate up to 1893. Second, it highlights the tensions inherent in the Senate's power to expel as understood by senators at the time. It illustrates that how best to use that power is far from clear.

The full text of the debate can be found in the Congressional Record (53rd Cong. special session, pp. 137-164). It can also be found below.