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Impeachment: An Opinionated Overview of the Process

Info: 5046 words (20 pages) Essay
Published: 16th Mar 2021 in Politics

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Summary and Thoughts

 There is a process outlined in the United States Constitution by which a federal agent can be charged, and ultimately removed from office, if they are suspected of a wrongdoing or misdemeanor. This process is called impeachment.

On the outside, impeachment may seem like a relatively simple process, but in reality, there are a lot of things that must happen in a very specific way in order for an impeachment to actually occur. In simple explanation, the process generally has three phases – initiation, committee action, and consideration.

Impeachment proceedings are generally initiated when a resolution that contains the articles of impeachment, or the explanations for the charges, is submitted through the hopper. In fact, all House resolutions are submitted in this fashion. From there, the resolution is either given to the Judiciary Committee or the Rules Committee. It is given to the Judiciary Committee if the resolution directly calls for the impeachment of an official, but if it simply calls for the investigation regarding the potentially impeachable wrongdoings of an officer, then it is handed off to the Rules Committee. Both committees have the power to report a privileged resolution, authorizing an investigation. House Committees often even do preliminary research regarding charges against officers prior to the adoption of the resolution.

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If the impeachment resolution does not surface in this way, then it generally surfaces as a “Question of the Privileges of the House” when a Member offers the impeachment resolution on the floor. When it comes about in this way, the House has several options. They could either choose to table the motion, refer it to the Judiciary Committee, or vote on it directly. However, the House usually doesn’t approve of articles of impeachment brought up in this way. They generally rely on the Judiciary Committee to conduct an investigation, hold a hearing, and report a recommendation to the House. Because of these reasons, the actual consideration of the articles of impeachment is generally the second or third step in the process as a whole.

If, after investigation and consideration, the committee determines that the impeachment of the official is justified, they will engage in a process called the markup. At this level, they will debate and come to the final conclusion. If the House approves the impeachment resolution, the case is presented to the Senate. Only then is the final decision made.

Because of the complex nature of the impeachment process and the many balances placed throughout every step of the system, I believe that the process is effective and as fair as is possible.

Introduction

In the case that a federal official, such as the President, Vice President, judges, and other civil officers, has committed an act of “treason, bribery, or other high [crime] and [misdemeanor],” the United States Constitution outlines a course of action, known as impeachment (“High Crimes and Misdemeanors”). If approved, this effectively removes the accused official from office and disqualifies them from holding future office. The power of impeachment, however, is limited to this. Fines and potential jail time for wrongdoings are left up to the civil courts to decide (“Impeachment”).

The House of Representatives and the Senate are given the power to implement this process. In order for this process to be executed, a House majority must adopt the articles of impeachment that are presented in the resolution. The Senate then has the power to try the impeachment and formulate a decision, acting as the sole court (“Impeachment Clauses”). For the impeachment to be affirmed, two-thirds of voting Senators must vote to forcibly remove the official from office (Lord, 2019).

If the Senate deems the articles of impeachment not severe enough to warrant a complete impeachment, they also have the option to simply prohibit the official from holding future positions at the federal level. This only takes a majority vote (Rybicki, 2019).

Personally, I believe that distributing the powers in the impeachment process between two groups is very beneficial and adds to the fairness as a whole. Since the articles of impeachment are considered by two groups (the House of Representative and the Senate), the wrongdoings of the official are parsed through and debated from many different perspectives to determine whether the actions actually warrant an impeachment. This is especially important because each case is different and it is often unclear whether the action committed by the official actually warrants an impeachment, as the constitution does not outline every possible impeachable offence. Furthermore, I think that if there was more consideration of the articles of impeachment, this would be worse because there would likely be more debate and the conclusion would be less decisive.

Over 60 impeachment proceedings have been initialized, however only 19 have actually resulted in impeachment (“Commonly Requested U.S. Laws and Regulations”). Most of the impeachments that have taken place in the United States have been to remove federal judges from office, however we have also impeached two presidents (Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton) and one cabinet official.

The impeachment process is complex and very defined, generally consisting of three phases – initiation of the process, committee charges regarding the articles of impeachment, and consideration of the articles of impeachment. This report will simply overview the procedures and stipulations that come with these steps and should therefore not be regarded as a form of authority on congressional proceedings.

Overview

As previously stated, an impeachment inquiry can surface if the government official is believed to have committed an act of “treason, bribery, or other high [crime] and [misdemeanor].” The process itself can be initiated in a number of ways such as through the submission of a resolution, which introduces the articles of impeachment, investigations by congressional committees, or the referral of information from an outside source (Rybicki, 2019).

No matter how it comes about, an impeachment takes place in three stages of congressional action.

  • First the inquiry must be authorized. This usually happens through the adoption of a simple resolution that prompts the Judiciary Committee to conduct an investigation on an official.
  • Second, the committee conducts an investigation, the results of which are reported to the House.
  • Third, the articles of impeachment, or the explanations of the charges outlined in the resolution, are considered.

Ultimately, if the articles of impeachment are adopted, they are presented by managers to the Senate, which determines the outcome of the inquiry.  These steps are very similar to those taken with a typical House resolution and will be further discussed below.

The Initiation

 Any Member of the House has the power to initiate the process of impeachment by drafting a simple resolution and submitting it to the House through the House hopper. The House hopper is the method by which all House resolutions are to be submitted. There are currently no regulations on when resolutions are able to drawn up and submitted, however, they are sporadically received (Rybicki, 2019).

 The fact that any Member of the House has the power to submit a resolution at any time adds to the legitimacy of impeachment as a fair and just process. This does not limit the opportunity to inquire about an impeachment and this deregulation invites people to voice their concerns about the actions of an official immediately while the evidence is fresh, and before the official potentially commits more actions of this nature and the situation gets more complicated.

Provided that an impeachment is directly called in a resolution, it will be referred to the Judiciary Committee. However, if the resolution simply calls for an investigation by a standing committee or proposes the formation of a special committee to take on the investigation, the resolution will be referred to the Committee on Rules. This committee handles the jurisdiction over the authorization of committee investigations. In either case, the committee is able to authorize the investigation, though in some instances, they have researched the charges and sought out more information before doing so (“A Guide to the Rules, Precedents and Procedures of the House”).

Additionally, instead of being submitted to the House hopper, a Member may offer a resolution on the floor as a “Question of the Privileges of the House”. However, this Member must give notice of their intent to take this course of action unless they are the majority and the minority leader, who do not need to give notice; their resolutions are considered immediately, granted they qualify. For example, if the resolution offered from the floor proposed a committee investigation instead of the direct impeachment of an official, this would not qualify as a question of the privileges of the House. Regardless, if this happens, the Speaker must consider the offered resolution within two legislative days (Rybicki, 2019).

I believe that having a time restraint on how quickly a resolution must be considered also adds to the honor of the system. Not only does this allow the inquiry to proceed in a timely manner, but by demanding a decision rather quickly, the Speaker has less time for very deep deliberation and is therefore able to think more straightforward without bias and emotion and make a logical decision based solely on the facts presented.

 A resolution raised in this way could be discarded in a multitude of ways. For example, it could be deferred to the Judiciary Committee instead of voting on it directly, effectively placing the resolution at the same status level it would be at if it were submitted through the hopper. The House could even motion to table the resolution, which would immediately dispose of it (“The Impeachment Process”).

This method of impeachment has been attempted several times. However, it has never directly led to the approval of the articles of impeachment. In every case where an official was actually impeached, the House of Representatives conducted an investigation for the inquiry and contemplated recommendations (Rybicki, 2019). This is another thing that makes the impeachment process a relatively fair one. The House doesn’t generally jump to conclusions. They prefer to have all of the evidence beforehand to make an informed decision.

Investigations: Outside Material

Evidence and information in reference to the misconduct of an official regarding their impeachment inquiry may reach the House of Representatives and committee before the adoption of the resolution actually occurs, which would officially direct a committee to conduct an investigation. This is because this type of material – including, but not limited to, petitions and reports - may be submitted by citizens of the United States. Additionally, standing, or existing committees are able to conduct authorized investigations and research charges related to the inquiry before the adoption of the resolution itself (Rybicki, 2019).

This is one of the biggest things that I believe makes the process fair. The fact that citizens are able to provide input on the impeachment by supplying materials that are germane to the misconduct of the official is honorable. This makes it so that the impeachable offences are less likely to go unnoticed and the variety of evidence provided ensures the likelihood of the official receiving appropriate consequences.

Authorization of the Investigation

If the initial resolution was submitted through the hopper and ultimately referred to the Committee of Rules, the Committee of Rules then chooses whether to report the resolution to the full House of Representatives for consideration. If they decide to report it, the resolution would be deemed “privileged” at that point, meaning that it could potentially be called up to the floor (Rybicki, 2019).

The process of consideration of the articles of impeachment is very strict and complex. The resolution is considered under special circumstances collectively known as the “hour rule”. The Members are able to speak for an hour, however, a numerical majority can vote to end the debate. The member who initially compiled the resolution would be recognized for one hour under this rule and debate can last for that hour or less, since a majority in the House could agree to order the previous question on the resolution. When this happens, the debate ends and thereby, the opportunity for amendment ends too. A motion to recommit the resolution could be offered, but it would no longer be debatable at this point. Additionally, the House could consider the resolution under any of its regular processes, including suspension the rules, a ruling from the Rules Committee, or a unanimous vote. The two most recent resolutions brought to the House were taken up by unanimous vote. Both resolutions concerned federal judges and were agreed to without debate (Rybicki, 2019).

Committee Action

Impeachment investigations by the Judiciary Committee are subjected to the same rules that committee investigations are. These rules are determined by the House of Representatives. A resolution that ultimately authorizes an impeachment investigation has the power to give special privileges to, or place limitations on the committee. The Judiciary Committee has even formed subcommittees to aid the investigations regarding the impeachment inquiry. The authority of these subcommittees is established by the full committee (Rybicki, 2019). This justifies the validity of the impeachment process because through the formation of subcommittees to aid investigations, they are striving to gain as much information about the actions taken by the official as possible so that they are able to come to a more defined and undisputable consensus.

Hearings and Investigations

In addition to these powers, the committee also has other authorities when it comes to investigations. For example, they are able to summon people and materials to court and accumulate a travel expenditure. They may also conduct hearings, though these hearings would be limited by the committee rules and the House of representatives. Furthermore, there must be at least one week’s notice of the hearing and Members are given the right to question witnesses so long as they abide to the five-minute rule (Lord, 2019).

Normally, hearings conducted by the committee are public hearings, however there are several situations by which the hearings could occur privately. For example, the hearing could be held privately if the information discussed in the hearing would compromise national security or disclose sensitive information regarding the enforcement of the law (“Impeachment”).

This is another attribute of the process that adds to the fairness of it. By holding the general hearings in public, citizens are able to listen to the justifications of the decisions made by the court. This allows the citizens to follow the investigation and to understand why the final decision is made. Ultimately, this causes less stagnation within society regarding the impeachment inquiry because everyone would have heard and pondered about the same reasons and have been exposed to the same undisputable evidence.

The Markup

The committee that is investigating the potentially impeachable offences may meet to consider the articles of impeachment after reviewing evidence and conducting their investigation. This type of meeting is called a markup (“The Impeachment Process”).

To review, the articles of impeachment are the explanations of the charges in the resolution. The process by which consideration of an impeachment resolution occurs is the same process that is used for other legislation.

A proposed meeting must be planned in advance and the articles must generally be available for review 24 hours prior to the scheduled meeting. Committee Members are able to propose amendments to the articles and these are debated under the five-minute rule. A majority of the committee must also be present at the time of the vote to report. In the end, the committee decides if the impeachment is warranted and shares their recommendation (“Rybicki, 2019).

For the impeachment inquiry of President Richard Nixon, the markup was televised, and the committee agreed to special conditions for this markup. The Judiciary Committee considered a motion to recommend a resolution for six days in July of 1974. There was a ten hour period of general debate as each article of impeachment was analyzed separate from the others.

 The resolution for the case itself contained two articles of impeachment and three other articles were introduced as amendments. The two original articles and one of the amendments were accepted. The other two amendments were rejected.  This warranted an impeachment, but the President resigned before the recommendation could be submitted to the House.

The processes taken for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton were modeled after this structure. The Judiciary Committee took three days to consider the articles of impeachment in December of 1998. Similar to the previous impeachment inquiry, each of the four articles of impeachment in the submitted resolution were debated, amended, and voted on separately. Each committee member was given the chance to have an opening statement, which could last up to 10 minutes per member. Ultimately, all four of the articles of impeachment in the original resolution were agreed to and a new resolution was submitted to the House (“A Guide to the Rules, Precedents and Procedures of the House”).

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Allowing for the separate consideration of the articles of impeachment further solidifies the fairness of the process. This allows each article to be thoroughly parsed through without regard to the other and does not overlap with the consideration of the other articles. If all articles were considered together, there would be a less in-depth analysis of each as they would be seen as a cluster of explanations of the charges and this could lead to the wrongful impeachment of an official.

Information before Consideration

There is a rule that states the all members have access to informational records and that these records are property of the House. The information is almost always available once it is determined as a committee record unless the committee takes actions to protect the confidentiality of these records (Rybicki, 2019).

Since the informational records are generally available to all members, the impeachment process is fair in this sense as well. This decreases the likelihood of evidence being missed as more people would be able to freely analyze it and examine the impeachability of the actions.

However, the committee always has the power to place reasonable restrictions regarding the access of these records. For example, they can control where, how, and when this information can be accessed. The process by which this is accomplished is known as an executive session. This type of session restricts the attendance to only committee members and other authorized individuals and can only be held if there is a majority vote.

Evidence received in an executive session may only be released through authorization by the committee. Even if Members are able to access information, the conditions under which it may be viewed could be restricted. Furthermore, taking notes or copying the information is prohibited unless there is special permission granted by the committee. Executive sessions were used during the inquiries of both Presidents.

If more restrictions need to be placed, these can be adopted by the House or the committee (Rybicki, 2019).

Consideration of the Articles of Impeachment

Despite the fact that the process for the consideration of the articles of impeachment is vastly similar to the process of consideration any other form of legislation, there exists one major difference. This difference is in regard to the language that may be used.

Under the standard consideration of other legislations, language that can be deemed as “personally offensive” toward the President is not tolerated. This type of language includes accusing the President of a crime or alluding to wrongdoings of the President. However, if the consideration is ongoing for the articles of impeachment, allusions to the misconduct of the President are allowed. Despite this, Members should refrain from using excessively offensive language during this time (Rybicki, 2019).

This rule ensures that the offence is fully considered and that no information or evidence is being withheld to confine to the language guidelines of general legislative consideration.

Reported by the Judiciary Committee

Articles of impeachment that are reported by the Judiciary Committee are authorized for immediate consideration on the House floor. The chair of the committee as able to reference these articles at any time and the resolution would have to be considered immediately. After a debate, a majority could vote to order the previous question which requires the House to vote immediately on the main question – Should the resolution be agreed to? (“The Impeachment Process").

However, a motion to recommit the impeachment resolution could come between these two steps and any instruction to do this must be relevant to the resolution. At this point, the motion would not be debated.

When the chair of the committee references these articles and they are considered, they are generally considered under the hour-rule, however there are other methods as well. For example, consideration could occur under the terms of a resolution submitted by the Rules Committee, or a special rule. In this case, the house would first debate the proposed resolution offered by the Rules Committee which sets the terms of consideration of the resolution regarding the impeachment. The resolution submitted by the Rules Committee could specify the length of the debates, structure of the amendment process, and could alter voting in a way which would allow the articles to be voted on separately. Furthermore, it could prohibit processes that come with the employment of the hour-rule, such as the ability to table a motion. If agreed to, the consideration of the impeachment resolution would proceed under the terms outlines in the resolution submitted by the Rules Committee (Rybicki, 2019).

This would allow them to change the terms under which the resolution is considered if it is agreed on unanimously. This type of agreement can form the new structure of consideration. The difference between this method and the previous method is that this method requires a unanimous decision to make changes while the special rule simply requires a majority.

Additionally, the process of the consideration of the articles could be determined by unanimous agreement. This could happen if the House calls it up as a question of privilege. To raise a question of privileges of the house, there are several steps that must be taken. First, a member must draft a resolution containing the articles of impeachment. Next, the Member must have a consultation with the Office of the House of the Parliamentarian to ensure that the resolution qualifies as a question of the privileges of the House. If it meets the qualifications, the Member must give intent to offer a question of the privileges of the House.

 Next, the reader must read the drafter resolution in full on the floor. The Speaker must then schedule the consideration of the question of the privileges of the house within two days of completing this.

Lastly, the Speaker determines if the resolution gives rise to a proper question of the privilege of the house. If it does, the resolution is assigned a number and remains pending until the House of Representatives begins its consideration.

A question of the privileges of the House is considered under the hour-rule. However, the House often discards these resolutions by deferring them to the Judiciary Committee or setting a motion to table. The House also has the option to order the previous question. This ends the debate and it must be voted on directly. The House has never impeached an official without an investigation executed by the committee (“Impeachment”).

Offered on the Floor as a Question of the Privileges of the house

As stated earlier in this report, any Member of the House is able to offer a resolution containing the articles of impeachment as a “question of the privileges of the house”. This action doesn’t necessarily result in a vote on the articles of impeachment or even a debate about them. This is because the House could decide to take a different course of action, such as deferring it to the Judiciary Committee.

House Managers in the Senate Trial

After the articles of impeachment have been approved by and agreed to by the House, members are appointed to serve as managers in the Senate trial. This appointment occurs by agreeing to a House resolution. The House also informs the Senate that the articles of impeachment have been adopted and authorizes the managers to conduct the trial in the Senate.

After the resolution are sent to the Senate from the House, the Senate decides when the managers can present the articles of impeachment to the Senate.

After the articles of impeachment have been agreed to, Members are chosen to serve as managers in the Senate trial. The House generally appoints managers by agreeing to a House resolution. The House also forms another resolution to inform the Senate that it has adopted the articles of impeachment. The resolution also authorizes the managers to conduct the trial in the Senate. The House can agree to separate resolutions or to a single resolution. These types of resolutions are considered privileged and are able to be agreed to by unanimous consent.

After the resolution is received by the Senate, the House is informed when the managers can present the articles of impeachment to the Senate. At the time specified, the managers read the resolution that authorized their appointment and then also the resolution that contains the articles of impeachment. This occurs on the Senate floor (Rybicki, 2019).

After they present the resolutions, they leave the floor and only return when the Senate invites them back for the trial. At the trial, the managers present evidence against the official. The accused official also presents their defense. The managers are then able to, and even expected to, respond to the defense (Lord, 2019).

By allowing the accused official to share their defense rather than coming to a conclusion  based solely on the information gathered from the articles of impeachment and the conducted investigations, this allows the process to be more justified because hearing what the defendant has to say may reveal new evidence that may ultimately save them from an unwarranted impeachment.

The full explanations of the procedures of an impeachment trial conducted by the Senate are far too lengthy and complicated to discuss in depth for this paper. There is a set of rules that the Senate generally abides to that provides some guidance for the structure of an impeachment trial, however, these rules are merely a direction for the trials to stick to and therefore the Senate is able to develop supplementary or alternative procedures (Rybicki, 2019).

Conclusion

 Overall, the impeachment process is very complex and rigid in structure. There are many rules to abide to and several aspects have to align for an impeachment to actually take place. As to ensure that the official receives appropriate consequences, there is much debate and consideration that is done. However tedious the process may be, the regulations at every step guarantee that the process is as fair to everybody involved as possible.

References

  • “Commonly Requested U.S. Laws and Regulations.” USAGov, www.usa.gov/laws-and-regulations#item-35842.
  • “A Guide to the Rules, Precedents and Procedures of the House.” The U.S. Government Publishing Office, www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-HPRACTICE-112/html/GPO-HPRACTICE-112-28.htm.
  • “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Constitutional Rights Foundation, www.crf-usa.org/impeachment/high-crimes-and-misdemeanors.html.
  • “Impeachment Clauses.” University of Chicago Publications, press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/tocs/a1_2_5.html.
  • “The Impeachment Process.” National Center for Constitutional Studies, nccs.net/blogs/articles/the-impeachment-process.
  • “Impeachment.” Legal Information Institute, www.law.cornell.edu/wex/impeachment.
  • “Impeachment.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, history.house.gov/Institution/Origins-Development/Impeachment/.
  • Lord, Debbie. “How Does Impeachment Work?” Atlanta News Now, Cox Media Group National Content Desk, 20 Sept. 2019, www.ajc.com/news/national/how-does-impeachment-work-here-the-step-step-process/5wUTeEdEgheqohUL1WA0IJ/.
  •      Rybicki, Elizabeth. “The Impeachment Process in the House of Representatives.” Federation of American Scientists, 14 Nov. 2019, fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45769.pdf.

 

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