Impeachment is probably one of those words that’s been Googled a lot lately. I don’t have my college textbook on Constitutional law anymore (what was I thinking when I gave that one away?), and my own understanding of the process was a little fuzzy, so I thought a bit of a fact refresher would be helpful.
The kind of impeachment the House of Representatives is now considering is the process by which a legislative body directs charges against a government official. It is analogous to an indictment in criminal law, and is basically a statement or listing of charges or accusations.
Lots of countries besides our own have and use an impeachment process. In some of them, provisional removal from office of the person being impeached is required; that’s not the case in this country.
Our Constitution is always a good read. In Article I, Section 2, it says “the House of Representatives … shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.” Section 3 says “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 ….”
Article II, Section 4, says “The President, Vice President and all civil officers … shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
It is a profound, and profoundly vague, statement. People way, way, more knowledgeable than any of us (forgive me for including you in that statement if you’re one of those knowledgeable people) about the F.F.’s intentions say the writers did it that way on purpose. They wanted Congress to make the interpretation about what constituted those misdeeds (checks and balances anyone?).
Historically those interpretations have included things like dishonesty, negligence, perjury, abuse of authority, unbecoming conduct, bribery. James Madison, our fourth president, included unfitness, negligence and perfidy in his interpretation.
There isn’t anything in the Constitution that gives specifics about how an impeachment investigation or inquiry should proceed. There is nothing that requires the House, which has a Democratic majority at this point in time, to hold a vote authorizing impeachment proceedings.
It is clear, though, that impeachment is a legal option rather than the coup that some have labeled it. Coups are most generally violent. This process is, to quote the “Washington Post,” a case of “constitutionally authorized bodies” using “constitutionally-granted powers.”
Process and outcome are two different things, however. While a Senate impeachment trial of a president can result in the ousting of that president from office, it hasn’t yet. President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 — both remained in office. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 — it’s likely his impeachment trial would have resulted in his removal.
Meanwhile, we need to maintain our ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, because while our attention is directed over here, something else is happening over there.
For example, the Trump administration has proposed opening more than half of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to the logging industry via exemption from the 2001 Roadless Rule. That legislation prohibits road construction and logging in more than 58 million acres of federal land, including 9.2 million acres of the Tongass, one of the largest carbon sinks in the world.