As the jokes keep coming, the situation becomes graver under our very noses. Monday night, the House Judiciary Committee voted along hard party lines, 21-16, to send a proposal for a wide-ranging probe into President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and possible perjury charges; eventually leading to a vote on whether to proceed with impeachment hearings. If the House of Representatives approves the proposal on Thursday, the Senate will shortly begin a trial, presided over by the chief justice of the United States, leaving President Clinton a hair away from losing his job. Our federal government will have looked to the past and chosen a poor role model from past impeachment hearings.
The gravity of this development is lost on much of the nation. Impeachment represents the sole constitutional mechanism available to Congress for the removal of corrupt members of the executive and judicial branches. Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, lays down the groundwork: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Historically, the impeachment process has been a solemn affair, conducted with the appropriate caution and respect due to a federal leader. Only twice before 1998 has a president faced the possibility of being impeached. The first time Congress tried to impeach a president, in 1868, the thin veneer of respect hid the political motives of a hostile “Radical Republican” Congress hell-bent on driving Andrew Johnson out of office. The Radical Republicans charged that Johnson had violated one of the recently passed restrictions on the president, the Tenure of Office Act, by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who Jackson suspected was spying for the Radicals. Johnson survived the Senate trial, being acquitted by a single vote. This partisan effort of the Radicals failed.
President Richard M. Nixon, on the other hand, faced a host of legitimate, impeachable charges, having committed a variety of serious offenses ranging from obstruction of justice to firebombing. He did not survive the process, resigning rather than facing a Senate trial. The events surrounding Watergate were appropriate applications of the Constitution, and it is a regrettable situation. So far, partisan politics has lost out to reason in the impeachment forum.
If a trial is set into motion today, and the Senate assumes the responsibility of censuring President Clinton or removing him from office, a 1998 reincarnation of the 1868 Radical Republican Congress might just succeed where its predecessor failed. A partisan Congress will drive an enemy out of the White House based on a concocted offense that stems from a concocted independent counsel. A precedent will be set that will taint U.S. politics forever. We do not remove officials based on severity of offenses, but on the number and strength of their enemies in Congress.