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Impeachment is all the rage these days, although, throughout American political history, only three presidents have earned the coveted impeachment jacket: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Richard Nixon may come to mind, but in that case, he fell into the “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” category as he resigned from office before the completion of impeachment proceedings.
History of Impeachments
Here’s the kicker. Historically, impeachments have had about as much impact as the Psychic Hotline. To date, no president has ever been removed from office by the impeachment process although the procedure has given us an infinite supply of off-color jokes. For those who don’t have Air Force One Fast Pass tickets, impeachment is much more common. Sixty-some people in lower positions have been impeached but only 19 of those have endured the entire process. Of those, only eight were ultimately kicked out of office. If you’re curious, they were all federal judges.
We’re not in the business of arguing for or against recent impeachment proceedings, so we’ll leave that to the legions of cable news show pundits and their seemingly endless and mind-numbing panel discussions. As I write this, impeachment grenades are crossing each other mid-air over the proverbial aisle. Here, we’re going to talk about what impeachment is and how it works. Then you can make your own judgments about who should and shouldn’t be impeached.
The Impeachment Process
While we can all agree that Congress generally operates like a pre-school where the lunch lady spiked the Turkey Tetrazzini with PCP, in the case of impeachment, it’s Congress members who get to be the parents. Simply put, Congress has the ability to put the President (or other “civil officers of the United States”) in a political time out. Actually, it’s more like a weaponized time out because not only can Congress issue stern warnings, but they can remove a President from office, take away the plane, and start eviction proceedings from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Hold this thought for a hot second; there’s a lot more than a simple impeachment vote required to implement such extreme actions.
So, what is impeachment? If you watch crime dramas like Law and Order or follow any politician’s career for more than 12 months, you might be familiar with the concept of indictments. An indictment is an accusation. You might think of it as a leveling of charges, kind of like a frustrated parent counting to three before the serious discipline begins. Here, the parent is the House of Representatives. I know, that’s tough to swallow, so just stay with me. While the House can, through a vote, impeach a sitting President, the process is not a trial, the completion of it does not represent a conviction, and impeachment isn’t even evidence of guilt. After the House finishes impeaching, the process moves to the Senate for a “trial” phase.
Constitutional Justifications for Impeachment
So, what manner of bad behavior can bring about impeachment? That’s addressed in Article II, Section 4 of the United States Constitution. If the thought of reading the Constitution makes you want to fake your own death, get a copy of my book, The Practical Guide to the United States Constitution. Even a career politician can understand it. It’s also fun. Back to the issue at hand.
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
You have to give the Founders an A+ for brevity. Those 31 words cover a lot of ground, don’t they? The Constitution doesn’t go into any more detail over what specifically makes up “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but it’s been generally understood that impeachable offenses do not have to be a violation of criminal law. When leading the house minority, Gerald R. Ford (you know him, he later became the stumbling president) suggested that “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” For example, some future Oval Office occupant may give the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the cast of The Real. While not technically illegal, I think we can all agree the action would cause irreparable harm to the country, so that might be an impeachable offense.
Per Article One of the Constitution, the House of Representatives is solely empowered to begin impeachment proceedings at the federal level. The process is simple, although cable pundits make it seem complicated. After some investigation, which may start just about anywhere, someone in the House of Representatives draws up articles of impeachment. This is nothing more than an itemized listing of bad behavior accusations. Once the articles are filed, the House votes, and if a simple majority of voting members present agree, then the offender has been duly impeached.
Consequences, or not, of Impeachment
What does that mean? Besides a few headlines and possible political clout impacts, not much. The impeachee still wakes up the next morning and goes to work, just like the day before. The only exception to their normal routine might be a ruthless slashing of their holiday card list.
It’s kind of like a United States version of a bollocking. Having been bollicked myself one morning in Scotland, just minutes after a brutal red-eye flight, I now know bollicking involves a lot of noise and threatening words, but with no lasting consequences except to one’s pride.
It’s the Senate that judges all legal proceedings that follow impeachment. Besides looking stern and speaking to news media about how unpatriotic the offending party is, they get to hear evidence, berate lawyers, and ultimately decide on guilt or innocence.
Two-thirds of the present Senate must agree before someone is deemed guilty. If it happens to be the President of the United States that’s getting impeached, then the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial.
While the senators can have a trial to determine whether the impeachment has teeth, their punishment options are limited. Should you ever get impeached, the Senate can only remove and disqualify you from “any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.” However, don’t think you’re off the hook from spending time in the slammer. If you did something illegal, you can still be arrested, indicted, tried, judged, and punished accordingly; it’s just not part of impeachment proceedings.
Oh, one more thing. Those handy presidential pardons don’t apply to those impeached. Presidents can’t pardon themselves or any other impeachees.