Impeachment: Myths, Facts, and History
Right-wingers trembled with glee when Sen. James Inhofe said that President Obama might be impeached for the events in Benghazi. Few rank-and-file Americans understand impeachment or the odds of it happening. It does not mean that the president is fired.
Most members of Congress and the media understand what impeachment means, but our schools work very hard to produce politically ignorant citizens. Impeachment means charging a public official with an offense. Impeachment does not mean firing a public official from her/his job.
Constitution and Procedures
The U.S. Constitution states that:
The House of Representatives shall … have the sole Power of Impeachment.
(Article I, Section 2, Clause 5)
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present. (Article I, Section 3, Clause 6)
- Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law. (Article I, Section 3, Clause 7)
- 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. (Article II, Section 4)
Only the House of Representatives can impeach. The House can impeach hundreds of public officials: the president, vice president, all federal judges – including Supreme Court justices – cabinet secretaries and other high-ranking officials.
Any House member can propose articles of impeachment through the regular House process. The member submits the proposal to the House clerk, who assigns a House Resolution (H.Res.) number and forwards it to the House Judiciary Committee. The committee decides whether to hold hearings or to recommend a full House floor vote on the articles. Or the committee can ignore the whole thing.
The articles must charge one of the four offenses listed above: treason, bribery, high crimes, or misdemeanors. The term “high crimes and misdemeanors” was a British common law phrase meaning a public official’s crimes against the government. Lying to Congress about weapons of mass destruction is a crime. Lying to the public is not. Torture is a crime. Holding opinions different from one’s political opponents is not a crime. PWB (Presidenting While Black©) is not a crime. Declining to produce school records, birth certificate, personal financial records, tax returns, marriage license, or dental checkup records are not crimes.
If the full House approves impeachment, then the official has been impeached. But that just begins the process. The accused still faces trial in the Senate. The designated House members present their case to the Senate. The official presents her/his defense. The Senators act as the jury for the trial. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court serves as the judge for presidential impeachment trials. The Senate votes on whether to convict the official. At least two-thirds of the senators present must vote for conviction.
If the Senate acquits the official, that’s the end of it. Everyone goes back to work. If they convict, then the official is removed from office – fired – and can face standard criminal charges in the appropriate regular court.
House members have proposed impeachment resolutions against three U.S. presidents. The full House approved impeachment of two of them.
In 1868, the Senate acquitted Andrew Johnson of violating the Tenure of Office Act – which was later declared unconstitutional. Historians agree that the charges were politically motivated.
In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee recommended an impeachment vote against Richard Nixon, for obstructing a congressional investigation, using law enforcement and intelligence agencies for political purposes, and refusing to comply with the Judiciary Committee’s subpoenas for the Watergate scandal. Nixon resigned the presidency before the full House voted on the recommendation.
The Senate acquitted William Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice relating to an alleged affair with a White House intern in 1999.
The House of Representatives has initiated impeachment proceedings more than 60 times, but the Senate has only conducted 19 trials. The Senate convicted eight of the 15 impeached federal judges, most recently in 2010. In addition to Johnson, Clinton, and the judges, one cabinet secretary and one senator were also impeached. The Senate acquitted War Department Secretary William Belknap in 1876. North Carolina Senator William Blount’s impeachment trial established the principle that members of Congress are not “civil officers” under the Constitution, and cannot be impeached. The charges were dismissed, but Blount was expelled from office under Article I, Section 5, Clause 2.
Two House members – Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) – filed five separate impeachment resolutions against President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney from 2004 to 2008 regarding the Iraq War. The committee ignored all of them.
One civilian genius even used the White House “We the People” website page to petition President Obama to impeach Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) for introducing gun control measures in Congress. Another wants Obama to impeach Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA) for their “handling of Benghazi”. Yes. These idiots, who just love the Constitution eversomuch, asked the President of the United States to impeach four elected officials who can’t be impeached, when only the House of Representatives has that power in the first place. And more than 45,000 other idiots signed the petitions. That’s just two more examples of the incompetence of the civics teachers in our schools, folks.
Impeaching President Obama
Many Republicans, along with their media, pundits, bloggers, and other cronies, have been screeching for impeachment since the moment Obama took his first oath of office four years ago. Yet not one impeachment resolution appeared until Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) proposed it in March 2012 and again in January 2013 for using military force in Libya without a congressional declaration of war. The House Judiciary Committee has ignored those proposals too.
As for Inhofe, he can talk all he wants, but Senators can’t impeach presidents. Considering how much the Republicans hate Obama, surely John Boehner and Eric Cantor would have prosecuted or filed some valid new charges if any existed, or if they thought there was any chance of success. In the end, the grownups in Congress know that there are no grounds to impeach Barack Obama. If there were, they would have done it by now. But they sure do enjoy making empty threats.
For More Information
- Read the Constitution
- U.S. House of Representatives – Impeachment
- U.S. Senate – Impeachment
- Library of Congress – Search “Articles of Impeachment”
- Congressional Research Service: Impeachment: An Overview of Constitutional Provisions, Procedure, and Practice