No mercy for Menendez

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a meeting of the Senate Banking Housing and Urban Affairs in Washington, DC in 2009. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

The last time the U.S. Senate had to expel a member, the country was tearing itself apart in the Civil War. With a country that feels almost as divided today, 2017 may see another Senate expulsion — Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

Federal prosecutors in Menendez’s home state opened a trial against the Democratic senator earlier this month, accusing him of accepting a variety of lavish gifts from Florida eye doctor and personal friend to Menendez, Salomon Melgen. These include private jet flights, campaign donations and free hotel stays. In exchange, the prosecution claims the senator applied undue pressure on the State Department to award federal contracts in Melgen’s favor, among other charges.

A federal jury in Palm Beach, Florida convicted Melgen on 67 charges of fraud back in April, but Menendez’s corruption trial began only two weeks ago and is still ongoing. If he’s convicted, the senator’s future is unclear.

Some, including political comedian and commentator Bill Maher, have suggested Menendez stay in the Senate so Republicans don’t increase their majority. Others, like Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., declined to take a position on the uncomfortable political situation.

“Sen. Menendez is issuing a spirited defense,” Schumer said at a press conference Wednesday. “We all believe in the presumption of innocence in this country, and Sen. Menendez is fighting very hard. And we respect that greatly.”

Schumer is correct that Menendez is innocent until proven guilty. But if federal prosecutors convict Menendez, Schumer and Senate Democrats must stand with justice and not provocateurs like Maher. Not only would defending Menendez from justice cost the party more politically than it would benefit them, but it’s clearly wrong.

Menendez’s potential departure from the Senate would have vast political implications. The Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, would have power to fill the vacant seat, and the appointee would serve until the 2018 general election. This could give Senate Republicans a critical extra vote in passing legislation over the next year.

A senator can be expelled if two-thirds of its members vote in favor of expulsion. This would require all 52 Republicans and 15 of the Democrats who currently make up the Senate to vote in favor of expulsion. In other words, at least some Democratic participation will likely be required for the Senate to expel Menendez.

If Menendez is convicted and Democrats refuse to vote for his removal, it would be an ethical disaster for our government. It would send the message that political power is more important than doing the morally right thing. And in an age when Congress is already viewed so negatively — 79 percent disapproval according to Gallup’s most recent poll — this would only serve to hasten a decline in Americans’ trust in government.

Beyond a simply moral appraisal of the situation, failing to vote for expulsion would complicate Democrats’ electoral strategy in 2018 midterm races. Ten Democrats are up for reelection in states President Donald Trump won, and four of these senators are from states that Trump won by more than 20 percent, making these senators incredibly vulnerable. The perception that they’re trying to protect a corrupt colleague likely isn’t going to do them any favors as they fight to retain their seats.

Some, including Maher, claim Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare will be successful if the party can simply gain one more crucial vote from Menendez’s Republican replacement. While a possibility, this outcome isn’t likely. Republicans have already demonstrated multiple times this year how difficult it is for the party’s various factions — from moderates such as Susan Collins of Maine to conservatives like Rand Paul of Kentucky — to unite on meaningful policies. Thought it would be helpful for the Republicans, a single shifted vote wouldn’t fix the Republicans’ fundamental disunity.

What’s more, the negatives of a Republican replacement for Menendez are only temporary. It’s highly unlikely that a Menendez’s Republican replacement will win reelection in 2018. The last Republican elected to the Senate from New Jersey was Clifford Case in 1972. And historical trends suggest that Republicans will fare worse anyway because they belong to the same party as the incumbent president.

Republicans aren’t ignorant of the dynamic they’re facing — and they’re hoping to get as much out of Menendez’s corruption trial as possible. The party is already building a campaign based around Democrats’ reluctance to back Menendez’s expulsion. A ad from the Republican National Committee posted to YouTube earlier this month questioned the ethics of Democrats who were reluctant about questions of potential expulsion.

“Are Democrats really going to let a convicted felon stay in the Senate?” the attack ad asked.

Menendez’s image is toxic. A Quinnipiac poll released Sept. 14 found only 20 percent of New Jersey voters believed Menendez deserved reelection. Meanwhile, the same poll showed Menendez’s approval rating hitting a new low of 31 percent. Democrats need to distance themselves and find a less ethically challenged individual to represent their party and the state of New Jersey.

In America, you’re innocent until proven guilty. This same standard applies to Menendez. However, Democrats can’t be shy about taking a stance on the New Jersey senator’s expulsion if he’s found guilty. For public figures in the Democratic Party, like former party spokesman Brad Woodhouse, to suggest they’d support Menendez’s continued presence in the Senate even if he’s eventually convicted is wrong. They don’t stand to gain anything politically from protecting a potential criminal, and such a move would do serious damage to our country’s democratic institutions.

If Democrats don’t do it, it’s possible voters will do their job for them — and elect them out of office.

Write to Ben at bps29@pitt.edu.

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