This week the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a resolution to begin an impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump. This is something that many Democrats have been pressing the committee to do. However, other Democrats, notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are cautious about impeachment, viewing it as politically risky.
Impeachment is the bringing of charges against the president, vice president, or other “civil officials,” such as cabinet officers. Impeachment does not remove them from office, however. Instead, impeachment refers charges to the Senate, which then must vote to remove that person from office.
Impeachment and the Constitution
The Constitution establishes the impeachment and removal process, explaining it in a few key sections:
- Article I, Section 2: The House of Representatives “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”
- Article I, Section 3: “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. 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 II, Section 4: “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.”
The U.S. impeachment and removal process is similar to the process that existed in Britain during the writing of the Constitution. However, the British Parliament impeaches and removes officials in one action. The framers of the U.S. Constitution made impeachment and removal two separate processes, thus weakening the ability of the legislative branch to remove executive branch officials.
How Impeachment and Removal Works
The House Judiciary Committee begins the impeachment process. Its members consider articles of impeachment, with approval coming with a majority vote. If approved, these articles of impeachment move to the full House of Representatives for a vote. The House then debates and votes on these articles. If a majority approves them, then that person has been impeached.
The Senate then begins its role. With the Chief Justice of the U.S. presiding, the Senate conducts a trial. The House of Representatives appoints members to manage the case before the Senate, laying out the charges contained in the articles of impeachment. The Senate then votes, with a two-thirds vote being necessary to remove that person from office.
Impeachment and removal may be for a public official’s criminal act, but they are not criminal proceedings. The only penalty, as the Constitution stipulates, is removal from office. The underlying crimes can be prosecuted by civil authorities, however, which may result in criminal conviction and penalties after impeachment and removal from office.
The History of Impeachment
The House of Representatives has considered over 60 impeachment cases, but most have failed. There have only been 8 instances where individuals have been impeached and removed from office. Fifteen judges have been impeached, as have 2 presidents:
- Andrew Johnson: The House passed 11 articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson in 1868. The Senate came within one vote of removing him from office.
- Bill Clinton: The House passed 2 articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton in 1998. The Senate vote to remove him from office failed.
In 1974, the House began the impeachment process against President Richard Nixon. The House Judiciary Committee approved 3 articles of impeachment against him, but Nixon resigned prior to a full House vote.
Federal Judge G. Thomas Porteous, Jr., was the last official impeached and removed from office. His impeachment and conviction occurred in 2010.
The Clinton Impeachment
The last presidential impeachment and trial took place over 20 years ago, when the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton. If there are proceedings initiated against President Trump, it would likely follow the pattern set during these proceedings.
In 1998, Independent Counsel Ken Starr provided a report to Congress that contained evidence gathered in the course of his investigation into various allegations against President Clinton. The House Judiciary Committee passed four articles of impeachment. Two were for perjury, one was for obstruction of justice, and one was for abuse of power. The full House of Representatives passed two of those articles of impeachment, one for perjury and one for obstruction of justice, on December 19, 1998.
The House of Representatives appointed thirteen managers to present their case to the Senate, which began its trial on January 7, 1999. Chief Justice William Rehnquist presided. The trial lasted a month, with the Senate beginning closed-door deliberations on February 9. The Senate took a vote on February 13 on the articles of impeachment. The Senate defeated the perjury charge by a vote of 45-55 and the obstruction of justice charge by 50-50. Sixty-seven votes would have been necessary to convict the president and remove him from office.
While both the votes in the House and Senate were largely along party lines, there were members of Congress who broke with their party leadership on impeachment or conviction. Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania (who later became a Democrat), voted “not proved.” Many observers saw these proceedings as an example of partisanship on both sides. This is in contrast with the impeachment proceedings that had begun against President Nixon, where a bipartisan consensus was forming to impeach and remove him from office prior to his resignation.
What This Means for You
The House Judiciary Committee vote means that this committee will begin investigating whether the president has committed the actions described in the Constitution that warrant impeachment. According to the resolution, "The Chairman may designate a full committee or subcommittee hearing as being for the purpose of the presentation of information in connection with the Committee's investigation to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to President Donald J. Trump."
Many Democrats accuse the president of obstructing justice and other crimes. They say that it is the House’s duty to impeach under these circumstances. The House Judiciary Committee's actions could add more clarity to these charges. However, Speaker Pelosi has cautioned members that such a move is politically risky, pointing out that Republicans lost popularity when they impeached President Clinton in the 1990s.
With Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, there is a possibility that the Judiciary Committee and then the full House could pass impeachment articles. However, it is unlikely that the Senate would follow suit, given Republican control of the chamber. If the Senate would convict the president and remove him from office under this situation, then the vice president would assume office.