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The impeachment question should rest on principle instead of politics

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Impeachment, it is said, is a political question. We are about to find out just how true that is. With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now directing six committees to proceed with their investigations under the umbrella of an “official impeachment inquiry,” all signs are that the House majority is on a schedule to impeach President Trump, likely before the end of the year.

Under the Constitution, the House of Representatives “shall have the sole power of impeachment.” Former House Majority Leader Gerald Ford, who would later become president after the resignation of Richard Nixon, famously declared, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

But that is neither what the Constitution states nor intends. Impeachment is a political question in that it is a high matter instead of a mere partisan power play. There are standards that the House should observe. Article Two tells us “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.”

There are two stages for this process. While a majority of the House may indeed vote for impeachment, the Senate has the sole power to try an impeachment. A trial presided over by the Supreme Court chief justice may convict and remove the president upon “the concurrence of two thirds of the members present.” The framers purposefully created the process of impeachment to prevent it from becoming a politicized affair.

At the convention, the delegates initially voted for “malpractice and neglect of duty” as grounds for impeachment, but that was narrowed to treason and bribery. George Mason suggested “maladministration,” but James Madison pointed out that this would destroy the executive branch independence from Congress. Mason then suggested “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which the convention accepted for the Constitution.

Bringing charges of impeachment in the House is separate from a trial in the Senate for good reason. While initiating impeachment in the branch closest to the people will assure popular support of the accusation, the House, subject to political passions, is not sufficiently detached to hold an impartial trial. But a supermajority in the Senate is still required to mitigate further against partisan House impeachments. The Senate is meant to check the heated impulses of the House rather than blindly follow them.

There have been a few dozen or so impeachments over the years, mostly of corrupt federal judges. The most notable impeachments of Justice Samuel Chase, President Andrew Johnson, and President Bill Clinton ended in acquittals by the Senate. There were proceedings and hearings at the House Judiciary Committee and a bill of impeachment reported to the House against President Richard Nixon, but he decided to resign before the full House could vote on the impeachment charges. No American president has been removed from office by impeachment.

How would an impeachment of Donald Trump compare to those of the past? His accusers hope for the clarity of a Clinton style impeachment, complete with lying to a grand jury, witness tampering, or concealing evidence. Short of such violations, perhaps they could follow the Johnson precedent of using the cover of legislation to oppose a president with whom they had extensive policy disagreements. But the model they seem to be following is that of Chase by removing an opponent because of ideological disagreement regardless of actual criminal misconduct.

After more than two years and millions of dollars, the special counsel investigation concluded there was no evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia, and found no obstruction of justice. Within days of the news breaking on the call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, before even seeing the transcript or the whistleblower account, both of which have since been made public, Peloi launched an impeachment inquiry into what she called a breach of “constitutional responsibilities.”

The impeachment fast track in the House is moving rapidly away from a deliberative formal process and toward an impassioned partisan frenzy. “To defeat him at the polls would do history a disservice and would do our nation a disservice,” Representative Al Green has said about Trump. “I am concerned that if we do not impeach the president, he will get reelected.” Yet if there is one lesson to be learned from past impeachments, it is that the process was never intended to be and should never be allowed to become a partisan tool for weakening or removing political opponents.

As former Senator Joe Biden once remarked about Congress reversing an electoral decision of the American people, “We in Congress had better be very careful before we upset their decision, and make darn sure that we are able to convince them that if we decide to upset their decision, that our decision to impeach was based on principle and not politics.”

Matthew Spalding is vice president of Washington operations at Hillsdale College and the dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government.

Tags Constitution Donald Trump Government Impeachment Nancy Pelosi President

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