One year after the January 6 insurrection that left at least five dead and briefly threatened to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in the most blatant coup attempt in American history, every major participant in the plot remains politically active. Many of them occupy positions of power in the very US Capitol that was attacked by Donald Trump’s minions.
Instead of holding to account those who gave aid and comfort to insurrection, the Democrats who control the White House and both chambers of the Congress have diverted their scant energies on a bureaucratic path of least resistance. Their failure to respond is sinking the country deeper into crisis.
Americans recognize the danger: A CBS News/YouGov poll finds that 66 percent of respondents believe that US democracy today is threatened, while 62 percent anticipate violence from the losing side in the next presidential election. Yet President Joe Biden and Democratic congressional leaders continue to avoid taking decisive action to address threats that become more potent, and widespread, with each passing day.
Democrats with the power to demand accountability appear to be waiting for Republicans to come to their senses. But that’s not going to happen.
The former party of Lincoln has become the party of Trump, an authoritarian cult that seeks to dismantle democracy in order to reimpose the minority rule of a disgraced former president and his white nationalist henchmen. That’s a fact, and it’s not going to change, no matter how ardently Democrats repeat Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney’s warning to her fellow Republicans: “Our party has to choose. We can either be loyal to Donald Trump or we can be loyal to the Constitution, but we cannot be both.”
The Republican Party has chosen. Cheney’s been booted from her position as a leader in the House Republican Caucus, and her home-state party has disowned her.
The best hope for protecting democracy is an action agenda to hold coup plotters and supporters to account. That does not absolve Democrats of their responsibility to act to avert gerrymandering, voter suppression, and any attempt by Republicans to rewrite election rules, intervene in election certification processes, or overturn results. But, without a clear focus on accountability, the Democrats are allowing Republican insurrectionists to believe they can do anything to subvert democracy without suffering consequences for their actions. What do we expect will play out on January 6, 2025, if the wrongdoing of insurrectionist legislators on or before January 6, 2021, goes unpunished?
The efforts of the House Committee that has been investigating the insurrection, as plodding as the inquiry has been, can and should continue. Yet it is unclear whether the committee’s efforts will amount to anything more than an information-gathering endeavor. Ultimately, we can hope that it will establish a permanent record of January 6 plotting and wrongdoing, and that the Department of Justice might take action based on that record. But there is no need to wait the months, perhaps even years, that it will take for the record to be complete.
There are immediate steps that Democrats can and should take.
US Representative Cori Bush has the best idea. The Missouri Democrat, who has led the push for accountability in the House, argues, “We should commemorate the 1-year-anniversary of January 6th by passing my H.Res 25 to investigate and expel the members of Congress who helped incite the violent insurrection at our Capitol.”
Last January, in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, Bush sponsored legislation to hold to account any House Republican who supported what she aptly described as a “white supremacist coup.” “The actions of the Republican lawmakers who tried to overturn the valid results of the 2020 elections must not only be condemned in the strongest possible terms, but I believe the members who attempted to disenfranchise voters and incited this violence must be removed from Congress,” Bush said of her resolution.
Specifically, the legislation calls on “the Committee on Ethics to investigate, and issue a report on, whether any and all actions taken by Members of the 117th Congress who sought to overturn the 2020 Presidential election violated their oath of office to uphold the Constitution or the Rules of the House of Representatives, and should face sanction, including removal from the House of Representatives.”
Bush has secured 54 cosponsors among House Democrats for her resolution, which can be approved with a simple majority vote of the House.
The move Bush proposes is not merely permitted by the US Constitution. Constitutional lawyers such as John Bonifaz with the group Free Speech for People argue that it is mandated by that document, which declares in Section 3 of the 14th Amendment:
No Person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States…to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
The language of the amendment, along with the language Bush has employed in outlining her push for accountability, is instructive. It covers two types of offenders: those who actively engaged in plotting with insurrectionists and those who gave aid or comfort to the project.
In the first category are a number of House members identified by planners of the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally as having collaborated with them. Those Republican representatives who the planners allege personally engaged with them directly, or did so via assigned staffers, include Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, Andy Biggs of Arizona, and Louie Gohmert of Texas.
Addressing the accusations against the most incendiary members of the House represents an important starting place for the pursuit of accountability. But it should not be the end of that pursuit. Ethics Committee members in the House and the Senate should also consider appropriate actions that might be taken with regard to the eight senators and 139 representatives who, after the January 6 rioters left the Capitol, voted to sustain one or both of the objections to the election results that were under consideration when the Trump supporters attacked. Did they not give aid and comfort to the coup attempt by supporting the program of the insurrectionists? Should they not be held to account?
In the Senate, Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown argued last year that two of his Republican colleagues, Missourian Josh Hawley and Texan Ted Cruz, had “betrayed their oaths of office and abetted a violent insurrection on our democracy.” He called for their resignations, saying, “If they do not resign, the Senate must expel them.” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said the Senate Ethics Committee “must consider expulsion, or censure and punishment, of Senators Cruz, Hawley, and perhaps others.”
That was the necessary response in January of 2021. It remains the necessary response in January of 2022.