Impeachment is large and central in the word salad of the month. Democrats are either full-bore for impeaching Donald Trump or mumbling about waiting for a “slam-dunk” piece of evidence to emerge––ala the Nixon Tapes. Republicans are either turning red-in-the-face from yelling at the top of their lungs how unfair, illegal, and misdirected this conversation is or quiet as church-mice cowering in the shadows.
The only faction being true to the Constitution is the group calling for impeachment. That said, some of them may be mistakenly thinking this is primarily a call for removal of the president from office. Impeachment is more than that.
The Constitutional Convention members, meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, wanted a government chief executive officer as a leader, both moral and stately, but they had a tightrope to walk––broad authority for the president or a leader weak as Melba toast. One of the founders’ great concerns in creating a republic with democratic choice was to avoid electing a tyrant. The final product contains substantial checks against anyone amassing too much power. Founders included checks and balances on all three branches, but they exempted the chief executive from the common court system to protect presidents from trivial challenges keeping them from doing their job. They balanced that decision with a means of calling out any official who has, according to Benjamin Franklin, “rendered himself obnoxious.”
Franklin opined, it is “best to provide in the Constitution for the regular punishment of the Executive when misconduct should deserve it or for his honorable acquittal when he should be justly accused. Without impeachment, the only recourse is assassination.” Without impeachment, a challenged president would “not only be deprived of his life, but of the opportunity of vindicating his character.” Ben wanted to add the gray-area option of a non-lethal defenestration from a first-floor window rather than a life-ending fall from the tenth story.
George Mason, the Virginia Founding Father and advocate for the Bill of Rights, voiced his concerns at the Constitutional Convention: “No point is of more importance than the right of impeachment.” He went on, “No one is above the law.” However, by constitutional design, it is difficult, or possibly even impossible, to judiciously question the president through the regular court system. Historical precedent came from ancient Roman law that installed a system to impeach senators, but not the Emperor.
Without removal from office, impeachment can be used to remind an office holder that they are not above the law, deter abuses of power, and provide a fair and reliable method to resolve suspicions about conduct. The result can ultimately be removal after a subsequent trial, but can more often be used to warn a president that their actions or behaviors are unacceptable and in need of change––much like a traffic stop warning, or probation for a first offense. Impeachment can be used by Congress as a warning and if ignored can continue into subsequent removal––the public equivalent to a jail term. The House of Representatives is the prosecutor and Grand Jury with the Senate serving as the judge and jury. If the D.A. (Congress) can’t be satisfied that concerns were heard and heeded the Grand Jury (Congress) can turn the offender over for a Senate trial.
None of this is partisan. It is a model with elements taken directly out of the U.S. judicial system––the one designed for all other citizens. When some of the noise claims that it is indeed political, it is time to remember that being a successful politician has two distinct characteristics. Only the first, getting elected, involves engaging in partisan politics. Once elected, a serving official needs to shift gears into the part of the job that calls for keeping a watchful eye on the needs of the country––the part of a congressmember’s job into which impeachment falls. The “getting elected” political skills call for flamboyance, charisma, and a megawatt smile, while the second phase calls for somber, reflective, selfless collaboration. Those are not always compatible human traits and is why some of the beautiful people hit a lot of homeruns getting elected, but ultimately fizzle while other high-quality governors never get the chance to serve.
When voters are diligent, thoughtful, and responsible with their ballots, choosing those who grind toward results over the sizzling, short-lived sparkler, impeachment languishes on the pages of the Constitution, only dusted off for law school discussions. When voters err in their duty to scrutinize office seekers, resulting in the election of tragic Shakespearian characters, impeachment is forced into the spotlight of daily news.
Impeachment is a serious and critical move by Congress, but it is not a final act. It is designed as a wake-up call in initial stages––a chance for redemption or vindication. Elected office can be kept viable by showcasing innocence and ability to lead. Vindication can be theirs if they choose to cooperate and provide exculpatory evidence beyond divisive rhetoric. Or, redemption can be granted with a sincere public apology and redirected focus rather than going to the mattresses, prepared to wage war against perceived enemies as the old crime families did when confronted with questions they could not defend.