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The impeachment illusion

Roundup
tags: Senate, political history, impeachment, Nixon, Trump



Donald A. Ritchie is historian emeritus of the U.S. Senate. He is the author of The U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction.

The best barometer of political anger is how often the word “impeachment” appears in news stories, editorials, and Congressional rhetoric. These days, the references have grown exponentially, despite the House Speaker’s efforts to keep her members focused on legislation.

The constitutional definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” is vague enough to have encouraged members of Congress to raise it repeatedly against judges, cabinet officers, and presidents of the United States. At times, just the threat of impeachment has been enough to encourage recalcitrant agency heads to release documents being held back from Congress or resign from office.

The Constitution’s requirement of nothing more than a majority vote for the House to impeach has made it an enticing illusion for angry members, who may forget that impeachment is an indictment, not a conviction. Senators must then sit as a trial to weigh the evidence and cast a two-thirds vote to remove anyone from office. Do the political math: a partisan vote in the House will not produce a bipartisan vote in the Senate.

Consequently, history records few instances of impeachments that successfully removed federal officials. Early in the nineteenth century, Jeffersonians had ample cause to be angry with the Federalists for packing the federal courts with judges likely to oppose them. But the Senate’s failure to convict Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1804 set a precedent against impeaching judges for their political views.

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