U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 4: 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.
On Oct. 31, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted 232 to 196 to continue its ongoing investigations to determine if sufficient grounds exist to impeach the president.
When the investigative committees conclude their inquiries and issue their final reports, the House Judiciary Committee may decide to draft and vote on one or more articles of impeachment. Each article of impeachment that receives a majority vote in the House Judiciary Committee is then referred to the full House for a vote.
The president is formally impeached if one or more articles receive a majority vote in the full House. Each article of impeachment adopted by the House then becomes the subject of a trial in the Senate, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. A vote of two-thirds of the senators present is required to convict and remove the president from office.
Why is the power of impeachment necessary?
The power of impeachment was the subject of much debate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The delegates regarded elections as the remedy for unpopular presidents. But, presidents who demonstrate unfitness presented a different problem. Benjamin Franklin observed that assassination had often been the only recourse for an unfit leader when government does not provide a process for impeachment. In ancient Rome, where the institution of impeachment originated, senators could be impeached, but emperors could not — a fact which led to a number of political assassinations. As Franklin argued, when a chief magistrate “rendered himself obnoxious” and was assassinated, “he was not only deprived of his life, but of the opportunity of vindicating his character. It would be the best way, therefore, to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the executive, where his misconduct should deserve it, and for his honorable acquittal, where he should be unjustly accused.”
What is an impeachable offense?
The Constitution provides that the president may be impeached and removed from office for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Some illegal acts, but not all, may constitute legitimate grounds for impeachment. A president’s failure to comply with a technical requirement of federal campaign finance law may not lead to impeachment proceedings. More serious violations of federal law or the Constitution are another matter.
The central question of the impeachment investigation at this moment is whether the president attempted to bribe Ukrainian officials by threatening to withhold $400 million in congressionally approved military aid in exchange for receiving comprising information about a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Title 18 of the US Code, Section 201(b)(2), makes it a crime for a public official to corruptly demand or seek anything of value in return for being influenced in the performance of an official act, or being induced to do or omit any act in violation of official duty.
It remains to be seen whether the president’s deeds and words constitute a violation of this law.
What were the founders’ concerns about foreign influence?
Fear of foreign interference was a dominant concern at the Constitutional Convention. In 1787, Britain and Spain still occupied territory along America’s borders. Delegates at the convention worried that foreign powers would attempt to interfere in America’s elections and influence the conduct of government. Alexander Hamilton warned that “the desire [of] foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our counsels” was a source of corruption and “one of the most deadly adversaries of republican government.”
The framers wisely included several guardrails in the Constitution to prevent foreign meddling. And it was fear of foreign influence that led them to single out the crimes of bribery and treason as grounds for impeachment.
How do politics play into impeachment?
Politics will always play a role in the decision of whether or not to impeach the president. History reminds us that presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were all impeached (or nearly impeached) during divided government, when the presidency and Congress were controlled by different parties.
Yet again, we face the prospect of impeachment during divided government. Yes, we should expect politics to shape impeachment, but such considerations should take a back seat to the more urgent objectives of enforcing the rule of law and preserving the integrity of the office of president.
In last Sunday’s Perspective section, Elizabethtown College professor April Kelly-Woessner offered a compelling explanation for why Democrats are likely to lose votes in the 2020 election if they move forward with articles of impeachment. Her timely comments remind us that, ultimately, it is the public that will determine whether the House Democrats acted appropriately in impeaching the president, if indeed they do so.
In 1974, the public gradually came around to supporting President Nixon’s looming impeachment. The situation was quite different in 1998, when the House impeached President Clinton. A substantial majority of the public did not believe the House acted appropriately, and support for Clinton’s impeachment never exceeded 36%
Ultimately, then, it is We the People who serve as the final arbiters of truth and justice — in this, and in all matters of democratic governance. And that is precisely as it should be.
Adam B. Lawrence is associate professor of government and political affairs and coordinator of the Robert S. and Sue Walker Center for Civic Responsibility and Leadership at Millersville University.