Pat Toomey Petitions
Pat Toomey Matt Rourke, File/AP Photo

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., speaks during a roundtable discussion in July 2015 at the Big Brothers Big Sisters Southeastern Pennsylvania office in Philadelphia.

February 08, 2017

Thousands sign online petition to recall Toomey, ignoring that it's impossible

A petition to recall U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey from office has gathered a whopping 19,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

But the petition's creator and everyone who has signed it are missing one important detail – you can't actually recall a U.S. senator.

A recall election is an important political process that lets people rise in a form of direct democracy and replace political officials before their term expires. But it's not recognized everywhere.

The ability to remove an official from office varies from state to state and is mostly used for officials at the local levels – think mayors, councilpersons, attorneys general, etc. – but it also can be used for state politicians.

It's been done plenty of times before, most famously with the recall of former California Gov. Gray Davis, who was replaced by actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was the second time in American history a governor had been successfully recalled from office. 

The catch is that only a handful of states and Washington, D.C. allow for such a recall process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Pennsylvania is not one of them.

"Well, I think this is part of people's frustration right now," said David Thornburgh, CEO of the Committee of Seventy, Philadelphia's political watchdog group. "Basic understanding is that – traditionally, this carries a lot of weight – elected representatives invite the opinions of constituents and that they respond to those. And I think people get frustrated when voicemail is full and the fax machine's offline. They're frustrated that their view [is] not being paid attention to."

But even if Pennsylvania had a recall system in place, it wouldn't really matter. Recalling a federal official, like a senator, would question the power of the Constitution and would be challenged up to the U.S. Supreme Court, Thornburgh said. 

A report from the U.S. Senate called "Recall of Legislators and the Removal of Members of Congress from Office" outlines that recalling a member of Congress is impossible. 

It says:

The United States Constitution does not provide for or authorize the recall of United States officials such as United States Senators, Representatives to Congress, or the President or Vice President of the United States, and thus no United States Senator or Member of the House of Representatives has ever been recalled in the history of the United States.

Toomey was re-elected to the U.S. Senate in November, receiving nearly 49 percent of the vote. But the people signing the Change.org petition don't feel that Toomey accurately represents his constituents.

And Thornburgh is right – people are just downright frustrated.

The petition – whose supporters are posting comments online every few seconds – argues Toomey is missing in action and that's reason enough to take him out of office. 

Toomey has come under fire after many tried reaching his offices to voice concern over Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump's choice for secretary of education. There are dozens of stories of Pennsylvanians trying to reach Toomey, only to be met with a busy signal. Some report that they have been lucky enough to get through to his voicemail.

DeVos was narrowly confirmed Tuesday. 

The only way to remove Toomey from office would really come from an expulsion vote in Congress. While there's no specific outline for why a member of Congress could be removed, the report from the Senate lists "perceived disloyalty to the United States, or the conviction of a criminal statutory offense which involved abuse of one’s official position."

Thornburgh said if people are looking to remove a senator – or any political official – from office, the easiest way is just to vote in the primary and general elections.

"The default is that the recall provision is the next election," he said. "Whether it's six years or two years or four years, that's the kind of logic that's embedded in our Constitution."