Lately, we’ve heard plenty about the “I” word, indictment. Now, as we near the cockcrow of autumn, another “I” word is reemerging: impeachment.
Last week, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy opened the door for the impeachment process. The wheels are in motion for an inquiry into the business dealings of the Biden family. It takes 218 House members to impeach, and Republicans have 222 seats. If they stick together, Joe Biden will become the fourth U.S. president to be impeached.
This column isn’t advocating for or against impeaching Biden, as it never advocated for or against Donald Trump’s impeachments. The purpose is to put impeachment into context.
Impeachment was once viewed as a way to remove presidents from office, something momentous and nearly unthinkable. But it’s becoming similar to an ordinary censure.
Because of political realities, impeachment is increasingly disconnected from the goal of removal from office. Impeachment requires a simple majority vote in the House, made more likely when it’s controlled by the president’s opposition party. Conviction and removal, however, require a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate, which is difficult to get and sometimes impossible.
When removal isn’t in the cards because of the Senate’s partisan composition, as was the case in the last three impeachments, impeachment primarily becomes a device to embarrass a president — one more arrow in the quiver of political weapons. When used that way, it can lose the desired effect. This partly explains why the parties that advocated impeachment of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were at least temporarily weakened more than their targets were.?
As columnist Quin Hillyer pointed out in this newspaper, some Republicans fear that a House vote to impeach Biden could backfire. The president is already weak, they reason, and wonder whether impeachment would give new life to his struggling reelection campaign. Also, Democrats now control the Senate so it’s unlikely they would convict.
Should Biden be removed from office, Vice President Kamala Harris would become president, a factor both sides may ponder.
During the nation’s first eight decades, no president was impeached. After Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868, the country went 130 years without another one. If Biden is impeached, it will be the fourth presidential impeachment in 25 years.
Seen as an essential component of our system of “checks and balances,” the impeachment process is set forth in the U.S. Constitution. Presidents can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” as can vice presidents and other officials, including federal judges.
Over time, 20 federal officials have been impeached: three presidents, one cabinet member, one senator, one Supreme Court justice and 14 judges. Eight were convicted, eight were found not guilty, three resigned, and one was expelled and charges dismissed. The most recent official to have been convicted at impeachment was Thomas Porteous, who'd been a federal judge in Louisiana's Eastern District, in 2010.?
In 1868, the House voted to impeach Andrew Johnson, but the Senate fell one vote short of the necessary two-thirds to convict. It was the only impeachment process that had a serious chance of actually removing a president.
In 1998, the House impeached Clinton on perjury and obstruction of justice. But the Senate failed to convict, falling short by 22 votes on one charge and 17 votes on another. It may be hard to believe, but the highest job rating Clinton ever received in the Gallup poll (73%) came right after his impeachment.
In 2019, the House impeached Trump on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. His job approval rating went up a point, according to Gallup. The Senate failed to convict, falling short by 20 votes on one charge and 19 votes on the other. In 2020, two months after he lost reelection, Trump was again impeached, this time for incitement of insurrection. But the Senate fell 10 votes short of conviction, even though seven Republicans, including Louisiana's Bill Cassidy, voted for it.
If there is strong evidence that a president has broken the law, and there aren’t enough Senate votes to convict and remove, perhaps the best remedy is not impeachment but criminal prosecution. The Justice Department’s policy not to prosecute sitting presidents could easily be ditched, since it’s not required by law.
In any case, impeachment is losing its place as a rarely used constitutional tool.
It’s now weaponized, as is everything else.
Ron Faucheux is a nonpartisan political analyst, pollster and writer based in Louisiana. He publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a nationwide newsletter on polls and public opinion.