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Three Times Senators Tried to Resign from Committee and What Happened

It is said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In the case of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) request to temporarily step down from the Judiciary Committee, there appears to be no historic analog. But as Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski recently reported, there are noteworthy instances where senators attempted to resign from committee. Investigating those events further may surface lessons that can guide the Senate through the stormy present.

As Roll Call reports, Riddick’s Senate Procedure, a compilation of the rules and precedents of the chamber, cites three cases where senators requested to step down from committee assignments: Huey P. Long of Louisiana during the 72nd Congress, Wayne Morse of Oregon during the 79th Congress, and John T. Morgan during the 51st Congress (1889-1891).

In one case, the resignation was accepted. In the two other cases, the requests were not effectuated. The circumstances of each of these three cases provide more insight than the outcomes alone. None of the cases involved a temporary replacement; neither were any of the circumstances predicated by infirmity or an inability to perform committee duties. It is worth noting that, like today, these incidents came amidst intense controversy in the chamber. Senators looking to these historical occurrences would have to stretch to apply them today, but they should consider how the passionate, and at times indecorous, behavior involved affected institutional comity.

Resignation Accepted: Senator Huey P. Long (D-LA)

On April 29, 1932, Sen. Huey P. Long submitted a resolution stating that he wished to, “…hereby resign as a member of the Committees on Naval Affairs, Manufactures, Commerce, and Interoceanic Canals.” Days later, the vice president announced that without objection Long would, “…be excused from further attendance upon the committees named.”

Long’s resignation was not out of an inability to carry out committee responsibilities, like Feinstein, or a wish to serve on other committees. Rather, Long resigned in protest of his own party’s political positions. Early on the day of his resignation, Long sparred on the floor with his Democratic colleagues, specifically Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson (D-AR), over Long’s support for a bill to cap annual individual income at one million dollars per year. In what the New York Times then described as a “verbal duel,” Robinson suggested Long was angling to take over Democratic leadership. Long later explicitly called for such a change. The incident was called “dramatic” and a “comic opera.” Long said that, in politics, when one “had to go another way” from one’s party, one is expected to “surrender whatever the organization gave him.”

Long was summarily replaced on his committees by other Democrats. He continued to serve in the Senate and, in the next Congress, it appears he took no committee assignments during the organization of the chamber.

Resignation Declined: John T. Morgan (D-AL)

Nearly 40 years before the Long incident, Sen. John T. Morgan requested to be excused from further service on the Committee on Foreign Relations, of which he was then the ranking member. As Roll Call points out, he was a Confederate general during the Civil War and a Ku Klux Klan leader.

Notably, the day Morgan requested the resignation was the last day of session for the 51st Congress . This is an unusual and relatively unimpactful time to resign one’s committee post, which raises questions about what motivated the move. The Congressional Record for that day regrettably provides only opaque clues about the circumstances of the request. Morgan was involved in an “antagonistic” debate regarding major international copyright legislation. He voted against it, but the question was initially agreed to. Opponents of the bill, including Morgan, desperately attempted to reconsider the vote and at one point Morgan even attempted to adjourn on the basis of lacking a quorum for business.

Opponents of the bill said it was being “railroaded” through, its passage a “reproach” to the body. Proponents responded that the opponents were desperately trying to kill a bill supported by a majority. In the end, the motion to reconsider was not agreed to; the legislation was signed into law and became the Copyright Act of 1891.

Unlike in the Long case, Morgan offers no explanation for his request to be excused from service on the committee—only one of his multiple assignments. A group of Democrats and Republicans urged him to reconsider, offering much praise for the Alabamian. Ultimately the Senate declined to accede to his request. Given that this transpired in the final moments of the Congress, it seems likely Morgan’s request was symbolic, as it would have little effect.

Resignation in Abeyance: Wayne Morse (R-OR)

As with Long and Morgan, much drama surrounded Sen. Wayne Morse’s request in 1946 to be excused from service on the Committee on Education and Labor. Outside of the Senate, a railroad strike had prompted President Truman to order the government to seize the railroads. Eight days later, Truman addressed a joint meeting of Congress on the matter, and after being handed a piece of paper mid-speech, announced the settlement of the strike.

That day, while debating emergency labor legislation, Morse announced that due to “unfair” and “unveiled” criticisms of the Committee on Education and Labor, on which he served, he wished to resign from the committee. Colleagues urged him to reconsider, but Morse insisted he spoke with finality. Other senators continued to debate the accusations that the committee was a “graveyard of legislation.”

Two days later, Morse accused Truman of engaging in “the cheapest exhibition of ham acting” he had ever seen, implying that Truman knew of the settlement before he took the rostrum. Democratic senators came to Truman’s defense. Carl Hatch (D-NM) insisted that Morse’s words be stricken from the record, a serious admonishment.

Morse persisted and debate over his statement as well as Truman’s actions continued. One of Morse’s Republican colleagues announced that, “With reluctance, but upon the insistence of the Senator from Oregon [Mr. Morse], I ask unanimous consent that he may be relieved from further membership or further service on the Committee on Education and Labor.” Bipartisan opposition to Morse’s request followed, with unanimous laudatory remarks about his service on the committee from its membership. Embarrassed with praise, Morse announced he wished that the resignation would “hang in abeyance.” Morse’s Senate biography notes he “thrived on controversy” and certainly that seems to have been the case in 1946.

Lessons for Today’s Senate

Senate norms around resignations from committee assignments are not consistent: one granted, one denied, and one not acted upon at request of the resigning member. These outcomes tell us little about how the current Senate might handle Sen. Feinstein’s situation. Extenuating circumstances—fallouts among co-partisans, proximity to the end of the Congress, and withdrawal by the requestor—provide much more insight.

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