Impeachment: As American as Apple Pie
“Impeachment.” It’s perhaps the word most frequently floating around Washington, D.C. these days. It’s also one of the few ideas that both President Donald Trump and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wish would go away, albeit for different reasons.
Regardless of one’s political leanings, impeachment is an issue we’re likely to hear debated – often and loudly – until Election 2020 is decided. So, without opining on the current political environment or providing a perspective on whether Congress has appropriate grounds to begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump, this week we will take a look at the United States’ process for impeaching government officials and compare our system for removing our elected leaders to those used in other nations.
Article II of the U.S. Constitution outlines the process for impeaching “The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States.” (The constitution doesn’t elaborate who is considered a civil officer, but, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), this provision generally applies to those individuals who are appointed to their posts by the president. That’s the vast minority of individuals serving in the federal government.) It takes a simple majority vote of the U.S. House of Representatives to impeach an official, but, as those of us who watched the Clinton impeachment proceedings will vividly recall, this vote – a vote for actual impeachment – isn’t the one that actually removes an official from office.
That questions is up to the members of the U.S. Senate.
If a majority of House members vote to impeach an official, then the matter moves to the upper chamber, which carries out an impeachment trial, with members of the House constituting the prosecution. In cases where the Senate is considering the removal of the President of the United States, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court oversees the chamber’s proceedings. A two-thirds majority of U.S. senators present for the vote – not those currently in office – must agree in order for an official to be convicted on any single article of impeachment. If the Senate convicts an individual then it also falls to members of that chamber to determine which one of two punishments it will enforce: removal from office or removal from office and a “prohibition against holding any future offices of ‘honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.’”
In other words: the convicted official either gets kicked out of his current position of power or he or she gets kicked out of Washington for good.
Section 4 of Article II outlines the grounds on which an official can be impeached. The first two – treason and bribery – are not vague. The final one – “high crimes and misdemeanors” – is. In Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton tried to explain: “The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
Clear as mud.
But it does mean that, as CRS explains, impeachable conduct is not limited to criminal behavior. Indeed, “Congress has identified three general types of conduct that constitute grounds for impeachment … (1) improperly exceeding or abusing the powers of the office; (2) behavior incompatible with the function and purpose of the office; and (3) misusing the office for an improper purpose or for personal gain.”
CRS cautions this list is not exhaustive.
Though “high crimes and misdemeanors” has a vague definition, members of Congress, historically, have not taken advantage of this fact. Only two presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton 130 years later, have been impeached. (Readers probably remember, all too well, the events surrounding Clinton’s impeachment. Johnson was impeached for removing a cabinet official – Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who had the temerity to support Republicans’ Reconstruction efforts – without Congress’ consent.)
Clinton was acquitted and Johnson was too, surviving removal from office by a single Senate vote. (If you think that feat is impressive, recall that Russian President Boris Yeltsin was impeached three times – including twice in 1993 – and survived every vote.)
President Richard Nixon was threatened with impeachment, but, facing almost certain conviction, left office before the House could vote.
According to CRS, in addition to the two presidential impeachments, Congress also has impeached 15 federal judges, one senator (William Blount of Tennessee) and one member of the cabinet (William Belknap, war secretary in the administration of President Ulysses Grant). The Senate has conducted 16 full impeachment trials. Half of those trials – all for federal judges – resulted in conviction.
But where did the founders come up with this mechanism? As The Atlantic explains, impeachment has “been in use from the earliest days of the English Constitution and government.”
During the Clinton impeachment hearings in 1998, The Washington Post provided an overview of this history, explaining, “Parliament developed the impeachment as a means to exercise some measure of control over the King. An impeachment proceeding in England was a direct method of bringing into account the King’s ministers and favorites – men who might have otherwise been out of reach. Impeachment, at least in its early history, has been called ‘the most powerful weapon in the political armoury, short of civil war.’”
According to an article in the UK’s Counsel magazine, the first impeachment in England occurred in 1376, when several of King Edward III’s courtiers were impeached by Parliament on corruption charges. The tool then fell into disuse for a couple of centuries. The Post notes impeachment was used frequently during the reigns of King James I (1603-1625) and King Charles I (1628-1649). In fact, between 1620 to 1649 there were more than 100 impeachment votes in the House of Commons. This is when, according to The New American, “impeachment re-emerged as what one writer described as “a potent means of attacking its [Parliament’s] enemies.”
As The New York Times explained, impeachment went by the wayside again in Britain after the 18th century because of “the growing strength of Parliament and the waning of despotic monarchial rule that allowed legislators to remove ministers through confidence votes” instead. As Britain’s governance of its leaders evolved, the system’s employed by its Commonwealth countries followed suit. Alongside Britain, dozens of other countries, including Canada, Ireland, Australia – not to mention neighbors like Italy – still use the system of no confidence votes today. (Indeed, British Prime Minister Teresa May could face another one before, or after, the Brexit mess is over.)
Impeachment is alive and well in other nations.
According to CNN, in the last four years, at least three world leaders have been impeached – and these all had to do with charges of corruption and bribery. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was removed by a vote of the nation’s Senate in August 2016. After Guatemala’s supreme court approved a motion to impeach President Otto Pérez Molina, he was removed from office and taken into police custody. In December 2016, almost four years after taking office, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, was impeached by the National Assembly. She was removed from office four months later, arrested and charged with abuse of power. In 2012, political opponents wanted to impeach German President Christian Wulff after it became clear he might have received favors from members of the country’s business community. Like Nixon, Wulff resigned. According to the International Business Times, five other world leaders have been impeached during the 21st Century alone.
Individual state legislatures also have the power to impeach and remove governors. The first governor of Nebraska, David Butler, was impeached after he was accused of using state education funds to buy property in Lincoln, the state’s capital city. He was later elected to the state senate. Readers will remember that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached just as President Barack Obama took the oath of office in January 2009 after the federal government accused him of corruption. Blagojevich faced a grand jury in April 2009. More than a year later, in August 2010, he was convicted on one of the 24 federal charges against him – lying to the FBI. Blagojevich is currently in the midst of serving a 14-year sentence at a federal prison in Colorado. In all, nine of the 16 U.S. governors who have faced impeachment votes were successfully been removed from office.
In the United States, the process for removing policymakers in high positions of power is as ingrained in our history as the separation of powers. Though it’s a political football that historically has been rarely used it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.