The House Democratic Caucus did not defeat a move to have the caucus decide whether convicted Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.) could chair a subcommittee as was reported in yesterday's paper. The proposal was adopted by the caucus.
House Republican leaders said yesterday they would move to expel convicted Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. (D-Mich.) from Congress.
Such a move could kick off a bitter battle since the Congressional Black Caucus leader, J. Mitchell (D-Md.), has said the caucus intends to back Diggs in any fight over his seat.
House Minority Leader John Rhodes (R-Ariz.) said a complaint would be filed on behalf of Republican members on Monday, the first day of the new Congress, with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, also known as the ethics committee. He said the complaint would "go to the question of whether the [Diggs] seat should be vacated" and the ethics committee would be asked to "investigate possible grounds for expulsion."
"I think the American people want Congress to consider whether or not Diggs should be a member of Congress," Rhodes said.
The move could force on the Democrats an issue they have been reluctant to face. During a recent Democratic caucus, members defeated moves to have the caucus decide whether Diggs should serve as subcommittee chairman or vote or participate in committee business, and deferred a move for an automatic expulsion vote in the House until after Diggs' appeals are exhausted.
Diggs was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for mail fraud and taking salary kickbacks of up to $60,000 from his staff. He is appealing the conviction. Despite the conviction, Diggs was easily reelected to his Detroit seat in November.
Diggs refused to comment on the Republican move, but Black Caucus Chairman Mitchell said, "Obviously we will fight against any attempt to expel Diggs for the simple reason that he has just been reelected. I don't think the House has any right to disenfranchise any group of people."
Mitchell cited the case of Adam Clayton Powell, the former New York congressman, who had been held in contempt of court for refusing to pay a fine in a civil suit and charged with abusing his committee chairmanship. The House voted to refuse to seat Powell but the Supreme Court overturned the vote on the grounds that he had been elected by the people. However, while saying that the House could not refuse to seat anyone for any reason other than failing to meet the constitutional requirements for membership, it left open the rights of the House to expel members once they had been seated.
Furthermore, Mitchell said, "If the most racist person in the world got convicted, then reelected, the House has no right to expel. It's up to the people to reject him. The horror and the blessing of democracy is that the people make the choice."
Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), in line to become chairman of the ethics committee, said if he was elected chairman he would present the Diggs matter as soon as the committee got organized for a decision by the committee on when to take it up.
He said the committee would probably want to wait until appeals by Diggs were exhausted if it felt the appeals would be handled promptly. "Certainly if the appeals procedure indicated unwarranted or unusual delay [we would] handle the matter promptly."
The ethics committee could investigate and find grounds for expulsion or that there are no grounds for expulsion and recommend the House act accordingly, or it could make no findings and simply send the complaint to the House floor for action.
House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) said if the ethics committee "sits on it" he would feel compelled to bring an expulsion motion directly to the floor.
Expulsion is a "privileged matter," meaning it would have to be handled as soon as it was brought up on the floor. It requires a two-third vote to expel a member.
House Democrats have treated the Diggs matter as a touchy problem. Diggs has said he would step aside as chairman of the District of Columbia Committee, but he is trying to keep the chairmanship of an African subcommittee on the House International Relations Committee.
In their organizing caucus in early December, the Democrats rejected a proposal to have the whole caucus vote on whether Diggs could keep his subcommittee chairmanship, deciding to leave it up to the International Relations Committee instead.
They rejected a move by Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer (D-Pa.) to prevent convicted members, even if reelected, from voting and participating in committee business, and they put off a Kostmayer attempt to automatically require the ethics committee to bring a vote on expulsion to the floor after appeals are exhausted.
A Kostmayer aide said the congressman would reintroduce both proposals when the Democratic Caucus meets again later this month. "The leadership may feel differently about suspending Diggs' right to vote and participate in proceedings if they feel if might hold off an expulsion move until after the appeals procedure is completed," Kostmayer aide Ed Mitchell said.
Only three members of Congress have ever been expelled. They were John Clark and Thomas Reid, of Missouri, and Henry Burnett, of Kentucky. All three expulsions took place in 1861 when the three were charged with treason because they had joined the Confederacy.