G. Terry Madonna & Michael Young: Five impeachment myths that matter
Media coverage of possible presidential impeachment dominates the news today as few issues in recent memory. Yet, the constitutional framework that controls impeachment is little understood by even normally informed Americans.
An ancient practice derived from English common law, impeachment was incorporated into our 1787 Constitution with minimum specificity and maximum ambiguity about what constitutes an impeachable offense or how the impeachment process was to play out.
Consequently, false beliefs or myths abound today about the whys and wherefores of the impeachment process.
Here are some of the most problematic of them.
Myth: Impeachment is a legal process similar to an indictment in which the president is charged with some criminal act.
Truth: Impeachment is a political process cloaked in the legal framework provided by the Constitution. Longstanding Department of Justice policy precludes a president from being indicted for any crime while in office. But the constitutional provision for impeachment provides that the U.S. House of Representatives can impeach for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Myth: Successful impeachment removes a president from office to be succeeded by the vice president.
Truth: A successful impeachment (majority vote in the House to impeach) simply sets up some sort of trial in the U.S. Senate requiring a two-thirds vote to convict. We don’t know exactly what happens if the Senate convicts because it has never happened for a president. No president has ever been removed.
Myth: Impeachment will energize the president’s base against the party pressing for impeachment, causing them to suffer significant losses in the next election. This myth’s evil twin myth is that impeachment causes an incumbent president’s popularity to decline.
Truth: We simply have no basis to know or project the electoral consequences of an impeachment process. It has swung both directions across the three presidential impeachments in national history. Republicans instigated and orchestrated the 1868 Andrew Johnson impeachment — and went on to increase their majorities in Congress as well as win the White House. Similarly, Democrats led the charge against Nixon in 1974 leading to historic gains for their party in the midterms. But the Clinton 1998 impeachment process produced notably mixed electoral results — with Democrats scoring rare pickups in the 1998 midterms but losing the presidency two years later.
Myths: The factual basis for impeachment is clear and unambiguous. A president knows or should know when he has committed an impeachable act and the legislators who vote impeachment rely upon bright red lines that spell out what is or isn’t impeachable.
Truth: Nothing seems more misunderstood about impeachment than the basis for it. In creating Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers left it to Congress to determine impeachable behavior. In practice, Congress’ authority has been limited by its ability to convince the American people that a president should be impeached.
Ultimately, the American people decide what is or isn’t impeachable with Article II of the Constitution acting as not much more than a legal prop in their decision-making. It is this key role played by the electorate that makes debunking of these myths urgent. An informed citizenry makes the best decisions.