For the American Congress, the act of impeachment is second in importance only to a declaration of war, and it remains the greatest check that Congress has on the Executive Branch and other government officials. The Constitution lays a framework for who can be impeached, what they can be impeached for, and the process that must be followed for impeachment. The impeachment process used in Congress can be traced back to fourteenth century England. The framers of the Constitution liked the way that English Parliament could use the process to gain authority over what was then the king’s advisors, which would be government officials the United States’ system. The actual language describing impeachment was not established until late in the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The language and the process remain unchanged since then, and their effectiveness has been proven many times.
Article 2.4.1 of the Constitution states that the Congress can remove from office the president, vice president and all other civil officers of the United States if they are found guilty of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Since 1797 the House of Representatives has impeached seventeen federal officials, the latest of which just occurred on March 11, 2010. These include two presidents, a cabinet member, a senator, a justice of the Supreme Court, and twelve federal judges. Of these only seven were convicted. This does not include President Richard Nixon, who resigned from the presidency instead of facing almost certain impeachment from his involvement in the Watergate scandal. The three most powerful officials to be impeached by the House of Representatives are Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1805, President Andrew Johnson in 1868, and President Bill Clinton in 1998. All three were acquitted in their Senate trials. The large amount of federal judges that have been impeached stems from the fact that they hold lifetime appointments “during good behavior”. Due to this design of the judicial system, they cannot be removed from office any other way.
The language pertaining to impeachable offenses has led to differing viewpoints as to what the founding fathers intended. Treason and bribery are self-explanatory, but “other high crimes and misdemeanors” have led to debate for years. There are two camps when it comes to what constitutes an impeachable offense. Broad constructionists view impeachment as a political weapon and would be more inclined to say that any act that desecrates the office is an impeachable offense. Narrow constructionists would argue that impeachment should be limited to acts which are punishable under the criminal code. Or perhaps Representative Gerald Ford (R-MI) said it best in 1970 when he claimed, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
The process of impeaching a government official follows set guidelines and includes both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Impeachment proceedings begin with a House investigation into the charges being brought against the official. In modern practice this is done in the House Judiciary Committee. The charges are reviewed by a lawyer for each political party, and the Committee has two weeks to make its report. If the Committee’s investigation supports the charges, they draft articles of impeachment to present to the full House of Representatives. There can be as many articles as are needed. For example, President Andrew Johnson had eleven articles of impeachment brought against him in 1868, while President Bill Clinton had four articles levied against him. The articles are voted on in the House on an individual basis and need a simple majority vote to pass. In Clinton’s case, only Article I, perjury before a grand jury, and Article III, obstruction of justice, were adopted by the House. The other two were dropped when they did not receive a majority vote.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL), begin debate on the fourth article of impeachment brought against President Bill Clinton. The video shows the formal nature in which the debate is conducted.
After the official is impeached, the House selects members to present the case to the Senate. These members act as prosecutors and are called “managers” in the impeachment process. In the Clinton Impeachment Trial there were thirteen managers, who were all Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee. They were led by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Henry J. Hyde (R-IL). The person being impeached is also represented during the Senate trial, although the defendant’s counsel is not comprised of members of Congress.
The Senate trial resembles a typical criminal proceeding with the senators acting as the jury. Article 1.3 of the Constitution says that the chief justice shall preside if the president or vice president is being tried. Both the prosecution and the defense are allowed to present witnesses and evidence, while the defendant is allowed counsel, the right to testify on his/her own behalf, and the right of cross-examination. If any senator wishes a question to be put to a witness, a manager, or to the counsel of the impeached person, it is put in writing and asked by the presiding officer. The doors of the Senate are to be kept open during an impeachment trial unless the Senate directs them to be closed while deliberating its decision.
The minimum attendance for the hearing to be held is a quorum; therefore, at least 51 senators must be present. This fact means that there is a possibility of partisan imbalance if the hearing is not well attended. For this reason, the senators take an oath when acting in their judicial capacity where they swear to “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God”. At the end of the hearing the Senate goes into a closed session in which individual senators are limited to fifteen minutes of debate.
The presiding officer gives the oath to all present senators according to Article 1.3.6 of the Constitution. It also shows the procedure for those senators who miss the initial swearing in. This clip comes from the impeachment trial of Texas Federal Judge Samuel Kent.
Two-thirds of the senators present are needed for the impeachment vote to pass. In the Senate voting process, the presiding officer states the article of impeachment, after which each Senator stands as his/her name is called and places a vote of “guilty” or “not guilty”. Each article of impeachment is voted on separately, yet conviction on only one article is enough for removal from office. If the impeached person is convicted, the Senate can also vote to permanently disqualify the person from holding a future federal office. Disqualification takes a majority vote, and has only occurred twice out of all the Senate convictions.
Senators take a final vote on Article I during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Note that Chief Justice Rehnquist is presiding due to the fact that the president is being tried. This shows the procedure where each senator is called by name and issues an oral vote.
The punishment levied by the Senate cannot extend beyond the official removal from office and disqualification; however, any person removed from office by impeachment may still be charged, tried, and punished for any civil or criminal violations that may have led to their impeachment. This is an important idea. Impeachment is not a punishment for any crimes the official might be accused of, but a protective device to keep the offender from having the opportunity to further abuse the powers of his/her position. Also important is the fact that once a person is impeached, they cannot be pardoned for their acts. President Ford granted a pardon to Nixon in 1974, but Nixon was never officially impeached. He resigned from office before the House could vote on it. It has also been questioned why the president cannot just pardon himself. In theory he could do this, but it would be an abuse of power and lead to another impeachment procedure.
The impeachment of any person holding federal office is not something that members of Congress take lightly, which is supported by the numbers. On average there is only one individual impeached every twelve years, and there is only one individual convicted every thirty years on average. The common perception of government becoming more corrupt in the modern era on also runs contrary to facts. The fact that there were seven individuals impeached in the 19th Century and nine individuals in the 20th Century shows that there was not a noticeable increase in impeachments as our country and its government evolved and grew larger. It will be interesting to see if this remains consistent through the 21st Century. With the explosion of every conceivable kind of social media, it seems as though any indiscretion by a government official would be found out in record time. One thing, however, will remain unchanged and that is the structure of the impeachment process, which has proven its worth throughout the past two hundred years. The very threat of impeachment has been enough to remove offenders from office in the past, and the American people can rest assured that one of Congress’ most powerful tools will continue to be used to cleanse public offices of those not fit to serve them.
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