This Monday, the Washington Post published rather a good editorial on the
state of affairs going into the House impeachment hearings. The Post
stated fairly clearly — at least on the grounds that the liberal press
is willing to talk about — the reasons why the Clinton crisis is an
extremely serious matter, acknowledged that it does involve the question
of Clinton’s fitness for office, and even admitted that it will have
very damaging effects for the future of our constitutional system if not
And yet, having cited all of these excellent reasons that the House
should move quickly to vote articles of impeachment against Mr. Clinton,
the editors of the Post held themselves back from reaching this
sensible, logical, and urgent conclusion. Noting that the president
continues to refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of his offense, the
editorial concludes that “the House has to find a way” to do so — and
since the editorial was entitled “The Duty of the House,” it sounds like
they mean it.
It also sounds like the Post thinks this will be difficult. The reason that it will be difficult, supposedly, is that so many people in the Congress and elsewhere have decided that the appropriate course of action would be a middle ground between the ultimate sanction of removing the president from office, on the one hand, and a failure to acknowledge the seriousness of the offense, on the other.
For various reasons, many people are acting as if such a middle course
between throwing the president out, or simply letting him off, will have
to be invented. Accepting for the sake of argument that such a middle
ground is the appropriate response to the president’s wrongdoing, it is
simply wrong to say that the Congress needs to “find a way” to do this.
The Constitution of the United States provides them with the necessary
means to deal with this issue, and it provides them with the means to
deal with it quite exactly.
First, let’s look at what the Constitution actually sets forth. It
provides for impeachment in the House, and trial and conviction in the
Senate. Only if convicted is the president removed. It is a two stage
process. As we know already from our historical experience, this can
lead to a situation where impeachment articles are voted in the House,
but the individual, after trial, is not convicted in the Senate.
Conviction is not a foregone conclusion.
There are several reasons that conviction is not a foregone conclusion.
First, once the charges are made, proper scrutiny, along with the right
opportunity for rebuttal on the part of the president, might lead to the
conclusion that he is not guilty of the charges, and the Senate would
Second, we should remember that Founders set different criteria for the
different stages. In the House of Representatives, only a majority vote
is required. In the Senate, a two-thirds vote is required. Because of
the requirement of a two-thirds vote in the Senate for conviction and
removal from office, there is nothing automatic whatsoever about the
ultimate consequences of the vote in the House of Representatives.
The Founders knew what the two-thirds vote requirement would represent.
It is quite an obstacle to the actual removal of a president. It is the
same hurdle that the Congress has to overcome in order to override a
presidential veto. The two-thirds standard is the level set by the
Constitution to allow the executive to protect himself from what might
be simply partisan, or otherwise wrongly motivated, assaults on the
executive branch. So the Founders clearly foresaw a situation in which
articles of impeachment would be voted in the House, and yet the Senate
wouldn’t vote to convict. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, and it is totally within the framework of the Constitution.
If we examine what the actual consequences are of an impeachment vote in the House, we see that they are not negligible. Consider Andrew Johnson.
For those with any knowledge whatsoever of our history, it is
impeachment that the name Andrew Johnson brings first and immediately
to mind. Does anybody talk much about anything else Andrew Johnson
might have said, done or stood for? That stain blots out whatever
might be the legacy of his presidency. In that sense, it represents
a serious historic censure that has sent a message to all subsequent
generations that something wrong was going on, and that serious
questions must be raised before allowing President Johnson to enjoy the
usual reputation of our presidents.
According to some — and I am not including myself among them, because I
think that Bill Clinton should indeed be removed from office — a serious
censure is exactly what is needed in the Clinton case. Well, if it is
exactly what is needed, we have it. We don’t have to try to find a way
to censure Bill Clinton — it’s right there in the Constitution. All the
Congress has to do is go forward with it.
It really is that simple.
Isn’t it wonderful how sometimes all you have to do is act with integrity according to the rules and the rest takes care of itself?
This ought to be the frame of mind of the House of Representatives right now. They don’t have to find a way; they don’t have to invent a way. They don’t have to come up with phony, extra-constitutional experiments like “censure”, because impeachment IS censure. It accomplishes what many members of Congress are at least claiming they want to accomplish with the imagined censure maneuver.
So simply by acting with integrity — by looking at the evidence now on
the table, which even the Washington Post says is sufficient to make the
judgment that serious wrongdoing went on — the House has at hand the
means to act on the obvious conclusion that impeachable offenses
occurred, to describe what they are, and to send that accusation on to
the Senate. That is all they have to do — and that is what they ought
to do in the course of the next several weeks.