The Constitution is kind of a big deal. But most of us have never read it. Or haven’t read it lately. Lately, I’m reading it very closely, and I’m sharing here. I’d love to talk with others about it, and besides, I often post about what I’m reading. After all, in a functioning democracy we should all be Constitutional scholars.
The Constitution has seven articles. I’m still in the first one, which deals with the legislature. I’m in Section 2, which deals with the House of Representatives. Last week I read Article 1 §2.4. Now it’s time for to finish off Section 2 with Clause 5.
The Framers were so wise. It’s like they knew I’d be reading this section in the middle of summer vacation and no one, myself included, would feel like getting too wonky. It’s only one sentence long, and deals with what conference organizers like to call housekeeping.
Members of the House choose their own officers. Cool.
The second half of the sentence is unrelated to the first, but whatevs. The House of Representatives shall have the sole power of impeachment.
Ok, technically, that’s pretty straightforward. But…whut? Why the House? Why is there only one body with the power of impeachment? Remember, impeachment is not the same thing as sacking the president. The Constitution website defines impeachment as:
formal accusation of wrongdoing
It seems like that would be a right available to anyone who feels wronged. Dictionary.com says:
I really dislike the Heritage Foundation’s policy recommendations, but I have found their Constitution website helpful. They give a bit of interesting history on some of the alternative methods considered by Framers before they settled on the same system used by the British – impeachment power to the lower House, and (spoiler alert) trial powers to the higher one.
I was also interested in this statement:
That leaves the question of whether the clause imposes an affirmative duty on the House to monitor the conduct of those subject to impeachment, and, when evidence of impeachable offenses is manifest, to initiate proceedings.
This question is quite timely, as there have been rumblings of impeachment ever since the current president took office. This talk is not only based on the feeling of “ugh, how do we get rid of this asshole?” At first it was because 45 did not give up his business interests, which stand to benefit tremendously from his current position (so many diplomats staying in Trump-owned hotels, for example) in probable violation of the Emoluments Clause. However, the first actual move to impeach Trump was unrelated to his business.
On July 12, Rep. Brad Sherman of California filed an article of impeachment accusing Trump of obstructing investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, in part by firing former FBI Director James Comey. Pretty much everyone agrees nothing will come of it, with even Democratic leaders keeping their distance from the move.
Impeachment is a rare occurrence. Only two presidents have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and both of them were acquitted. (Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.) Now, with a Republican-led house, there seems to be little chance of any impeachment gaining traction.
Since the Constitution is really all about checking power, it seems like an oversight on the part of the Framers to limit who can initiate impeachment without burdening them with the requirement to do so whenever there is evidence of an impeachable offense. (In their defense, they probably could not have imagined the two-party paralysis we live with today). But if there is only one body that can initiate impeachment, and that body is rigidly controlled by the president’s party… well it starts to look like a president can get his crime on unchecked.