Some “moderate” Republicans are still looking for some form of censure as an alternative to voting for impeachment of Bill Clinton. But a
censure without any penalty attached would be nothing more than words intended to evoke shame in a person who to date has displayed not evidence
of possessing any. And a censure with a penalty, whether a monetary fine or
something like barment from seeking future office would be constitutionally
problematic, both as a bill of attainder and as a trespass upon the concept
of the separation of powers among the three branches of the federal government.
What they may be overlooking is that, especially given the current correlation of forces, impeachment is not only the only constitutionally
prescribed remedy for abusing the powers of office, but it is a near-perfect form of censure.
Remember a couple of things. Impeachment, for all the legal jargon that’s been flung around the halls of Congress and spewed over the airwaves
this week, is a quintessentially political process. “High crimes and misdemeanors” was understood by the founders to mean something like “becoming so obnoxious, especially in the exercise of political power, as
to warrant serious reprimand.” When Richard Nixon announced his resignation by speaking of losing his political support base, he was being partly evasive and partly realistic. Had he not lost that base his lawyers could
have fought the charges with as much credibility as Mr. Clinton’s lawyers
have been able to muster.
The second thing should be elementary after all the months of discussion, but doesn’t seem to be understood in some quarters. Impeachment is not removal from office. Impeachment is a declaration by the House that there’s sufficient evidence that the president (or other high official) has done enough bad things that the Senate should hold a trial. Some have called it the equivalent of a grand jury indictment. But it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call it a resolution of severe censure.
Impeachment is a more severe form of censure than mere stern words. It would require the president (assuming the legal beagles are not correct
that an impeachment by the 105th Congress would not carry any weight in the 106th Congress) and his counsel and representatives to spend a serious
amount of time preparing and presenting a defense. It could require the president to raise and spend money to make sure his defense is adequate. It
would also require a good deal of time and attention on the part of the U.S. Senate.
But if all the analysts and experts are right, impeachment of this president at this time would be very unlikely to result in his removal from
office. He would have to spend time defending himself and he would forever
bear a certain taint, the extent of which would probably be debated by future historians for a hundred years.
In a way, impeachment would be the perfect approach to the most genuinely egregious malefactions of this president (assuming that the truly
egregious things like Filegate, mis-aimed cruise missiles, the China Connection, Vincent Foster’s death and the like are fated to be ignored by
officialdom). It would proclaim that the House of Representatives, at least, considers the malefactions documented to date serious enough to warrant a serious reproach. Yet, as the Constitution specifies, it would
leave the decision about whether the lies, evasions, cover-ups and abuse of
the system are serious to warrant removal from office to the Senate.
Even given that Bill Clinton is a stranger to shame, however, impeachment, with or without removal from office, would be a serious enough taint on his tenure in office to put a serious blot on his record. A
censure resolution, however sternly worded, wouldn’t do it; he would hang
his head insincerely a few times and skate right on by it. Besides being
the constitutional remedy provided for such misuse of office, impeachment
just might be serious enough to catch the attention, if not of Mr. Clinton,
then of some of his semi-automatic apologists and of history.
As for the plaintive complaint that an impeachment trial in the Senate, however foreordained the conclusion, might tie up the august U.S.
Senate and the president’s time for as long as four months, where’s the downside? If I thought there was a chance the Senate would otherwise spend
those four months repealing unnecessary laws or cutting the budgets of federal agencies, I might think twice. But four months without new laws,
four months without the daily small-gauge administration initiatives, each
of which expand the scope and power of the federal government and lay the
groundwork for future expansion. Somehow I think the Republic could survive that.
And who knows, an impeachment proceeding — again, whether it results in removal from office or not — just might initiate a national discussion on the power and scope of the modern presidency, on the temptations for abuse of power inherent in the office even when it is inhabited by relatively honorable people. That would be incomparably healthy for the country.
I may be dreaming, of course. The American people, even in the face of an impeachment proceeding, might not be interested in such a discussion.
Even without that healthy discussion, however, impeachment is the most appropriate constitutional step to be taken now and the most appropriate
form of censure for this president.