There is no other fundamental concept of American Constitutional Law that is as widely-discussed yet misunderstood as impeachment. Impeachment is an incredibly important power, yet it’s cloaked with hearsay and falsehoods. In the midst of the impeachment inquiry against President Trump, it’s essential that the partisans arguing for or against his impeachment actually understand what impeachment is. Below are common misconceptions about impeachment that stain contemporary debates over the issue.
“Impeachment requires a ⅔ majority in both chambers of Congress”
Article I, § 2, cl. 5 dictates that the House of Representatives “shall have the sole power of impeachment.” Article I, § 3, cl. 6 dictates that, “The Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments… 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.” The House of Representatives only needs a simple majority to pass articles of impeachment against the president; the Constitution is intentionally vague on impeachment trials, and Bill Clinton was impeached with 228 out of 435 votes. The Senate is responsible for conviction and removal. A more intensive trial with a much larger consensus is necessary to remove the President; this explains why no President has been removed by the Senate before.
“Impeachment is a radical action”
It is not radical or extreme for Congress to pursue articles of impeachment—or, in today’s case, simply an impeachment inquiry—against an abusive president, and the notion that it’s radical is largely untrue. In the political sense, “radicalism” focuses on usurping pre-existing political and social structures through revolutionary means. Impeachment is a legitimately established process that does not alter the political structure of the president’s office. Following the Constitution’s system of checks and balances intentionally limits radicalism, rather than adopting it.
This process was important enough to the Framers that it precedes the establishment of the Executive Branch. In Federalist 65, Alexander Hamilton notes that, “The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Impeachment was no less revolutionary in 1789 than it is today.
“Impeachment is undemocratic”
This is a linear way of interpreting impeachment.
To impeach, convict, and remove a President is to remove a democratically elected leader from office and, in some perspectives, to nullify an election. Trump and others label it a ‘coup.’ This language is understandably utilized to draw up partisan emotions towards the defending president. However, impeachment follows an outlined process that runs through two democratically-elected legislative chambers, with majorities required in both—and in the Senate, the qualified majority is very democratic. But ignoring this, the President chooses his or her successor in the case of removal, and the Vice President ascends into office through our representative voting system on the ticket with the President. Thus, impeachment won’t reverse or nullify the prior election. The impeachment process is divisive, but not an antithesis to our democratic systems.
“Impeachment can only happen with evidence of committed crimes”
Article II, § 4 lays out high crimes and misdemeanors as grounds for impeachment and removal, with treason and bribery as examples. However, the language is quite specific. The words “shall be removed…” mandates the removal, but does not limit Congress’s ability to impeach and remove to exclusively high crimes and misdemeanors.
Impeachment is a check against tyranny and abuse of power, and a president can abuse his or her office without breaking the law; as Hamilton noted in Federalist 65, this process can be used in cases of “the abuse or violation of some public trust.” A president who goes on a year-long vacation wouldn’t break any laws, but would be breaking their oath of office and abusing their office’s power. Furthermore, an impeachment inquiry can help bring new facts and information to the public to help decide a case.
“Impeachment can be used for any committed crimes”
The impeachment against Andrew Jackson helped redefine Congress’s impeachment powers by shifting them away from simple disagreements with policy to legitimately dangerous crimes. “High crimes and misdemeanors” is vague, but there are clear limits to when removal is important. The article of impeachment against Nixon for tax evasion had no bearing to his presidential conduct, and the charge of hiding documents to cover up the Cambodian bombings wasn’t a matter where removal, the last step, was justified. Congress has other remedies to presidential overreach, making impeachment justified with severe crimes or negligence of the office’s powers and limits.
This isn’t to argue that Trump should or should not be impeached. However, if the nation is going to debate over this impeachment, shouldn’t we actually understand what impeachment is?
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.