Democrats' quandary over impeachment would not surprise Founding Fathers
© Aaron Schwartz

House Democrats are in a quandary over whether to begin an impeachment inquiry into the conduct of President Donald J. Trump, based primarily on instances of potential obstruction of justice highlighted in the Mueller report. 

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump knocks Democrats on 'Open Borders' The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? Democrats already jockeying for House leadership posts MORE (D-Calif.) has been arguing against precipitously launching a formal inquiry on grounds that impeachment would only play into the hands of the president because it would surely be followed by acquittal (read: exoneration) in the Republican-controlled Senate and reenergize Trump’s base for his reelection. At the same time, growing numbers of House Democrats, urged-on by their virulently anti-Trump constituents, are chomping at the bit to charge into the fray at full-gallop –the political consequences be damned. That this controversy is percolating on the eve of a presidential election year has only heightened tensions within the Democratic Party. Ten of the 23 Democratic presidential candidates now favor impeachment proceedings.  

Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans view all this impeachment talk as nothing but politics as usual. According to a CNN poll conducted in late May, only 41 percent of the public favors impeachment proceedings while 54 percent oppose them. That’s approximately the reverse of Trump’s approval versus disapproval ratings of 43 percent to 52 percent.   

The Founding Fathers would not be surprised that talk of impeaching the president has become highly politicized. As Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist 65, the subjects of impeachment are those that “proceed from the misconduct of public men –from the abuse or violation of some public trust,” and therefore are “denominated as POLITICAL as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”  Hamilton foresaw that the prosecution of such misconduct “will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused.”

My first encounter with the subject of impeachment occurred shortly after I came to the House in 1969 as a staffer for my home district congressman, John B. Anderson (R-Ill.). House Republican Leader Gerald R. Ford (Mich.), after conducting his own investigation in 1969, introduced a resolution the following year to create a select committee to investigate the conduct of Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. At issue were Douglas’s accepting fees from two foundations and publishing a book that advocated rebellion and revolution – an excerpt from which appeared in a pornographic magazine.

When Ford was asked by a reporter what he considered to be an impeachable offense, he replied that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history,” thereby underscoring the political nature of the process.   

Ford’s call for an investigation was trumped by Democratic Rep. Andy Jacobs of Indiana who introduced a resolution calling for the impeachment of Douglas. That put the ball in the House Judiciary Committee’s court. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Emanuel Celler of New York, created a special subcommittee, with himself as chairman, to look into the matter.  The subcommittee eventually voted 3 to 1 that there were no grounds for impeaching Douglas. Ford’s resolution died in the House Rules Committee.   

Ironically, three years later in December 1973, after Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign due to a bribery scandal dating back to his days of governor of Maryland, Ford was elevated to the vice presidency by President Richard M. Nixon after being confirmed by House and Senate majorities. Ford subsequently became president in August 1974 when Nixon resigned in the face of imminent impeachment and conviction by Congress for his role in the Watergate scandal.

That was my second encounter with impeachment. At the behest of Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.), Majority Leader Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill, Jr. (D-Mass.) stage-managed the process leading-up to the final impeachment votes in the House Judiciary Committee. O’Neill skillfully held his troops in line until sufficient evidence and public sentiment had built to support a final push for the committee’s formal impeachment proceedings. That methodical approach reflected one of O’Neill’s mantras that in politics, timing is everything. 

I can’t help but think that current Speaker Pelosi has at her bedside a copy of Jimmy Breslin’s, “How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes from an Impeachment Summer,” in which the New York Daily News columnist closely tracked O’Neill’s every move along the way. So far, at least, Pelosi has managed to hold the line against the more impatient members of her caucus. But party discipline is not the same thing today as it was under Tip O’Neill.   

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.