For the first time in its history, the House of Representatives expelled a member yesterday for official corruption.
By an overwhelming vote of 376 to 30. Rep. Michael (Ozzie) Myers, a Democrat, was stripped of his right to sit as a representative of the First District of Pennsylvania. Just a month earlier, the 37-year-old former longshoreman was convicted of bribery and conspiracy for taking $50,000 in cash a year ago from an undercover agent in the FBI's controversial Abscam investigation.
The only member ever previously expelled were three border state representatives banished in 1861 during the Civil War for treason in supporting the Confederacy.
The historic nature of the moment was clearly recognized by the members who took part in the often emotional, and at times eloquent, four-hour debate.
Several members rose to urge the vote be postponed until Myers' appeals of his Aug. 30 bribery conviction are exhausted and a court hearing is held on his claims of government misconduct in the case. Others called the proposed vote a "parliamentary lynching" intended to show the members' purity just before adjourning to campaign for reelection.
But Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), chairman of the House ethics committee, and several others insisted that the House had a constitutional duty to judge a member, regardles of any court proceedings, and that Myer's conduct was so reprehensible that only expulsion was an adequate remedy.
Clearly the House was setting a likely precedent yesterday for dealing with future corruption cases. Myers is just the first of six House members to go on trial on Abscam-related bribery charges.
Of the others, Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.) is on trial now in Washington and was not present yesterday. Rep. Richard Kelly (R-Fla.), whose trial is later this month, was the only one of the 152 Republicans present to vote against expulsion. Reps. Raymond F. Lederer (D-Pa.) and John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.) voted against Myers' ouster. Rep. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.), who goes on trial with Murphy right after the election, didn't vote.
Myers fought expulsion to the end, then filed two suits yesterday.
In U.S. District Court he accused the House ethics committee of violating its own rules by using a shortcut disciplinary procedure before his conviction was technically completed by the judge's sentence.
In the Supreme Court he added for a review of whether the executive branch of government exceeded its authority by luring a member of the legislative branch into violating the law.
He is running for reelection in his south Philadelphia district. If he wins, the House will face the questions of whether to seat him and expel him again.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1969 that the House had erred in refusing to seat Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) after he'd been reelected dispite a corruption charge.
when he took the floor yesterday, Myers apologized to the House for his behavior on the FBI's secretly ordered videotape of the bribery transaction. bBut he insisted, as he did during his trial, that he was only play-acting and never intended to introduce a promise private immigration bill for the Arab "shiek" the FBI agents pretended to represent.
He asked colleagues to have the Judiciary Committee conduct a full investigation of the FBI's tactics in the Abscam case. And, finally, he told them their vote amounted to his execution.
"I know what it feels like now to sit on Death Row," he said.
The House chose, though, to follow the recommendation of Bennett's ethics committee and perform what he called its "sad, sad duty." The vote was far more than two-thirds majority required for expulsion.
Bennett said the integrity of the House was at stake, and that thought was echoed by several other speakers.
Rep. Jonathan B. Bingham (D-N.Y.), during lengthy legal arguments supporting a motion to postpone that failed 332-to-75, said Myers and brought shame on himself and the House. "To take any lesser action than expulsion would, I'm afraid, be further proof to our disillusioned young people that Congress protects its own and condones influence peddling. Even to defer would seem a cop out."
Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Calif.), a member of the ethics committee, said Myers broke his oath of office just like the members expelled for taking up arms against the Union in the Civil War. And he said that "perhaps the saddest" aspect of the Myers case is that it will be remembered for the quotes on the videotapes.
Taped accepting the cash payoff, Myers said: "I'm gonna tell you somthin' real simple and short. Money talks in this business and bullshit walks. And it works the same way down in Washington."
Nearly 200 members took time during the last week before adjournment to watch the tapes at the House recording studio, an ethics committee aide said.
Rep. Robert J. Livingston (R-La.), another freshman member of the disciplinary committee said the expulsion vote was needed to "send a message to the American people that this kind of conduct will not be tolerated."
Even those who supported the effort to postpone yesterday's vote did not defend Myers' conduct. Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) said he would vote for expulsion but felt the decision should be delayed for a calmer atomosphere after the elections.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) agreed, saying members hadn't had enough time, in the rush to adjourn, to study the Myers case transcripts. And Rep. Kenneth L. Holland (D-S.C.) said the "rush to judgment" might as well include other Abscam defendants. "Don't they have a right to be paraded out here and summarily executed?" he said.
But Rep. Richardson Preyer (D-N.C.), anther ethics committee member and former federal judge, said delay would not change the record on which the committee's recommendation was based. "The tape is there. It is there for all time," he said.
And Rep. James G. Martin (R-N.C.) said the precedent of never expelling anyone for corruption needed to be changed, starting with Myers.
Myers showed little emotion. In fact, he said he had no quarrel with the House's right to vote to expel him but was only allenging the timing.
Most of the members who spoke mentioned how sad or uncomfortable they felt in having to sit in judgment of a colleague. Bennett seemed near tears as he closed the debate before the vote with a final "painful" appeal for expulsion.
All members of the Virginia and Maryland delegations voted in favor of the expulsion resolution except Rep. Parren J. Mitchell of Baltimore. He argued, during the debate on postponement, the Myers' right to due process was just as important as not approving wrongdoing. "That's the only thing that separates us from a totalitarian government" he said.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) said the clerk of the House will take over Myers' office, but his staff will remain to handle routine business from the district.