The Democratic Party is using the threat of presidential impeachment to raise money. Its website warns, “Republicans have already held their first committee hearing on impeaching President Obama,” and urges donors to protect the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. That’s one way to stop impeachment. Here’s a better way: Tell the president to obey the law.
Putting the nation through the ordeal of impeachment would be drastic. But the framers of the Constitution designed impeachment to stop precisely what President Barack Obama is doing: grabbing for more power than the Constitution allows. The nation has impeached a president only twice in over 200 years, and in neither case did the president’s alleged misdeeds threaten the survival of our system of government. This time is different.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the framers worried about creating the office of president, fearing that whoever occupied it would try to act like King George III. America had just fought a war to stop the king’s abuse of their freedoms. But James Madison, George Mason and Edmund Randolph argued that impeachment could be used to prevent a president from seizing powers that belong to the people’s elected lawmakers, Congress. Impeachment would guarantee that “no man should be above justice,” said Mason. That argument convinced most of the framers, but not Marylander Luther Martin. He predicted that impeachment would seldom, if ever, be used. He was right.
In fact, 80 years went by before impeachment was used against a president. In that instance, it was misused and wholly political. Vice President Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat, who was sworn in as president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, clashed with the Republican majority in Congress. In 1867, Congress passed a law of doubtful constitutionality barring Johnson from removing a Cabinet officer without Congress’s permission. Johnson felt duty-bound to resist that encroachment and tried to remove his secretary of war. Congress responded with impeachment. In the Senate, the vote fell one short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove Johnson from office. Johnson had the better case, and, in addition, even his enemies worried about who would succeed him since at the time, the Constitution did not provide rules for succession.
It took another century before Congress was on the verge of impeaching a president. On July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee recommended President Richard Nixon be impeached for his part in the Watergate break-in, false statements to federal investigators and the American people about it, and misuse of the IRS. Rep. Hamilton Fish, R-N.Y., expressed what the committee as a whole seemed to feel, “deep reluctance.” Nixon resigned, averting impeachment.
Twenty-four years later, Congress actually voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, this time for criminality. The House voted on two articles of impeachment: one for perjury in a trial involving the sexual harassment of Paula Jones, and another charge for evading the House Judiciary Committee’s questions regarding his sexual shenanigans with White House aide Monica Lewinsky. At the Senate trial, two moments were decisive. The first was when Sen. Tom Harkin insisted the Senate take into account not only the evidence but also the consequences of impeachment for the nation. The second was when the president’s defense attorney told senators they were free to “find his personal conduct distasteful, ” but their task was to decide whether the president’s actions “so put at risk the government the framers created that there is only one solution.” Clinton’s disgraceful behavior didn’t meet that standard.
Perhaps that’s why the impeachment process backfired on Clinton’s enemies. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted on the eve of impeachment that Republicans would pick up 20 House seats in the November 1998 midterm elections. Instead, they lost five.
Today, the Democratic Party may be trying to exploit Americans’ understandable reluctance to impeach a president. But Republicans should be making the opposite and stronger argument. Now the grounds for impeachment would be constitutional, not political or merely criminal. Winning a sizable Republican majority in the Senate will enable the new Senate majority leader to remind the president of his duty to “see that the Laws be faithfully executed,” including the immigration laws, environmental laws and health care laws Obama has flagrantly disregarded.
Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and the author of “Beating Obamacare.”