Maine just experienced the nation’s latest try at impeaching the executive head of government. The matter went nowhere, because the move looked too much like politics.
Federal and state governments have shown just how hard it is to remove a chief executive. Few governors have been impeached and fewer yet removed from office.
The main basis for raising the question about Republican Gov. Paul LePage was his action to force the Good Will-Hinckley School in Fairfield to revoke its appointment of House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat, as its head.
While Eves has brought a civil suit against LePage, it is not clear that the governor’s threat to withhold school funding if Eves got the job was a violation of the governor’s oath of office. His action looked like a case of old-style politics.
The two most celebrated impeachments, both of presidents, showed how the action can be more political than based on illegal actions in the performance of their duties.
In 1868, Pres. Andrew Johnson was impeached. He came within one vote of being convicted for violating an obviously unconstitutional law that would have prevented him from removing members of his own cabinet.
In 1998, Pres. Bill Clinton was impeached, but not convicted, for lying in a civil suit involving his sexual activities. The alleged offense did not relate to his official actions.
In both cases, Maine senators, in the opposition party to the presidents, nonetheless voted against conviction. They saw the basis for impeachment as weak or political, not enough to justify removal from office.
Similarly, LePage, who is held in low esteem by many in the Legislature, would have been impeached on what seemed a matter of pure politics. Because this would have been the first impeachment of a Maine governor, legislators were understandably cautious about setting a precedent.
These cases reveal how difficult it is to distinguish between a sound reason to remove a public official from office and plain politics. A few officials, including governors, have been stripped of office for taking bribes or for alcoholism that prevented them from doing their jobs. But some have been ousted as the result of political opposition.
Constitutions and laws do not define the offenses justifying removal. That can make any decision to impeach essentially a partisan move. If the opposition lacks the votes to convict and remove, it may not take the political risk connected with impeachment.
In the LePage case, Republican legislators were unlikely to vote against him, ruling out the possibility of conviction. It seemed pointless to push hard for impeachment, and a weak, face-saving motion was all that could be passed.
If Maine law had said the governor could not refuse to spend funds properly appropriated for a narrowly defined purpose, there might have been a case against LePage for threatening to withhold support for the school. But it is unlikely there are laws that strict or narrow anywhere.
Another issue, not fully pursued, related to the issuance of bonds that had passed the Legislature and been approved by Maine voters. While customarily, the governor may choose the timing of issuing bonds to catch better interest rates, that was not the case, because rates were almost zero.
LePage openly announced he was withholding the bonds, not because of the interest rate, but to pressure the Legislature to accept another of his policies. It refused to yield. And the will of the people – the sovereigns of the state – was overruled by the politics of the governor.
All laws in Maine are deemed to have been passed by the people. For voter-approved bond issues, that is not mere theory. If the Legislature focused on the governor’s refusal to issue bonds, it might have provided an interesting test in defining what constitutes an impeachable offense.
Two points arise from the lack of definition of the grounds for impeaching a governor. First, the Legislature should not simply walk away from the question, now the LePage matter is off the table. Either a legislative committee or a special body should be asked to consider possible definitions, however broad, of impeachable offenses.
Otherwise, as the LePage matter illustrated at the state level and the Clinton case showed on the federal level, impeachment, left undefined by constitutions, can be an almost useless provision or just a political ploy.
The other lesson, especially from the bond issue matter, underlines the gap existing between the people and their government. If popular votes on legislative matters may be freely ignored by elected officials, government is neither responsive nor responsible.