Independence Day comes in less than a month. Many remember it as marking end of British rule over the American colonies. But, as the Declaration of Independence itself stated, the purpose was to end “all allegiance to the British crown.”
The Declaration is not a collection of grievances about Britain. It is a list of complaints about King George III. For example, it charges: “He has obstructed the administration of justice….”
Because of their experience under the British king, the Founders worried about a strong executive. For its first 13 years, U.S. lacked the office of president. Congress had the lead role.
Congress has since given the president great powers. Some occupants of the Oval Office claim the office is “unitary,” giving the president supreme power in the government. Forget checks and balances. The president may exercise even greater powers than those given by the Constitution.
The drafters of the Constitution worried about such a theory. One protective measure they included was impeachment and removal from office. They said that federal officials who engaged in “high crimes and misdemeanors” in their conduct while in office or to gain election could be removed by Congress.
Impeachment talk grows. More Democrats, resentful of President Trump’s breach of constitutional and government traditions, now favor it. Opponents are wary, but still complain that calls for impeachment are purely political.
The Constitution’s drafters understood impeachment was a political act by elected politicians. Otherwise, they might have turned it over to the Supreme Court, supposedly politically independent. The Founders required a two-thirds Senate majority for removal from office, reducing the chances of purely partisan action.
The current discussion is based mainly on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusion that Trump may have tried to obstruct justice, but that he cannot be prosecuted while in office. Mueller made it obvious that the only way to decide the question now was up to Congress.
It is the right thing to do. Mueller has provided evidence of possible obstruction of justice. Impeachment could focus on alleged obstruction and not the host of Democratic complaints.
Evidence that Trump tried to block the Mueller investigation merits hearings to yield a conclusion. President Trump and Attorney-General Barr should not be allowed to whitewash the findings.
Impeachment by the Democratic House is almost certain to result from an investigation. It should not matter that the Republican Senate would not remove him.
Former Maine GOP House and Senate member Bill Cohen advocates a House investigation. He believes that, as the facts are brought out, sentiment for further steps against Trump would grow.
That was Cohen’s experience on the House committee that voted the impeachment of President Nixon in 1974. Public opinion initially opposed ousting Nixon, but, by the time he resigned, he was sure to be removed by the Senate.
Another view is that an impeachment investigation will benefit Democrats politically by undermining Trump’s support. Some Republicans could no longer stick with their president, improving the chances for Democratic candidates in next year’s elections.
Why avoid impeachment?
It won’t work. While a Democratic House might impeach Trump, a Republican Senate would not remove him. Only if House and, possibly, Senate Republicans begin talking about impeachment would it be worth considering.
Short of impeaching the president, Congress could limit the powers it has generously given the White House. That would take a veto-proof majority, but would Republicans split with Trump, even to help Congress restore its constitutional role?
Impeachment might seem excessively partisan. Just as the misguided GOP House impeachment of President Bill Clinton hurt the Republicans in the following elections, the same might be true for the Democrats in 2020. The process could be divisive, exactly what many Americans say they don’t want.
Politically, it might even help Trump. He could point to the Democrats as being so unhappy about the results of the 2016 elections that they prevented the Wall and other useful legislation and even tried to reverse the result. He could cast himself as the victim of the opposition.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opposes impeachment, because she fears it would jeopardize chances of gaining moderate GOP support and would draw attention away from key issues. Many of the party’s presidential candidates favor impeachment, seeing it as a way to rally primary voters.
The impeachment process would get in the way of doing almost any other government business. The U.S. would be buried in tweets and counter-tweets.
Take your pick. Congress faces a tough decision with no easy answer.