Why Impeachment Makes Sense

Lucas Morel

September 26, 1998

A big question puzzling folks in and out of Washington is whether Clinton’s apparent perjury and obstruction of justice in the Monica Lewinsky affair warrant the knockout punch of impeachment or the wristslap of censure. Amidst the spin and hyperventilation that substitutes for political discussion, the telling issue seems to boil down to just what exactly qualifies as a "high crime and misdemeanor"?

As stipulated in the Constitution, the president can be removed from office for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." But where treason and bribery are pretty self-explanatory, "high crimes and misdemeanors" need defining. The phrase dates back to the 14th century, and generally means offenses against the state, which has led Clinton loyalists to remark that it should be interpreted narrowly. However, some reflection on the nature of the executive office suggests a more expansive definition.

One aspect of the president’s authority that has not been discussed, but which sheds light on the debate over impeaching Clinton, is the broad grant of authority vested in the executive by the Constitution. Unlike the Congress, with specific powers listed along with restrictions on their legislative authority, the lone occupant of the presidency receives a grant of "executive power" with no direct definition, little elaboration, and no explicit restriction besides what has been given to the other two branches by way of direct checks on his authority.

This is as it should be. Congress, the primary engine that drives the national government, gets to decide the laws that govern much of the day-to-day activity of Americans. Therefore its authority was limited to specific areas of national scope, all with an eye to preserving the freedom of the individual. On the other hand, the enforcement of the laws takes place in both ordinary and extraordinary times, in situations both predictable and not. This requires a much broader grant of authority to the nation’s chief law enforcer–the president–and nary a restriction ahead of time. So when an emergency arises that threatens the nation, the president can meet the situation with adequate discretion, vigor, and dispatch.

The fact that only one person exercises this generous grant of authority, for four years to boot, while a potential threat to liberty when considered on its own, actually serves to focus the people’s attention on the president’s actions. As the current occupant of the White House has discovered, there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. In a word, responsibility welcomes all who fill the presidential chair.

So what does this have to do with the appropriateness of impeachment? Simply put, impeachable offenses could not have been listed in detail because the ways in which a president could harm the state cannot be identified beyond a few obvious violations of the public trust. For example, the Framers needed no ghost from the grave to tell them that treason and bribery pose the greatest temptations to heads of state. But are there no other ways that the chief executive of a nation could betray his people? The president is expressly charged to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." Must the American people wait until the next presidential election before they dismiss him for harming the country short of outright treason?

Remember, "impeachment" is just a fancy word for "accusation," which is all the House of Representatives needs to decide at this point: Is there enough evidence to accuse the president of abuse of power? If so, the Constitution provides impeachment as a way for the citizenry–through their congressmen–to investigate the appearance of wrongdoing. The Framers expected impeachment proceedings to be politically charged, so they struck a balance between popular will and evidentiary muster. Why else does it take only a bare majority of the House to impeach a governing official, but a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict?

And so impeachment, as opposed to censure, exists not as a punishment but as a protection against further damage to the integrity of the national government. The Constitution makes this clear: if convicted, a president is not only removed from office but disqualified from holding "any office of honor, or trust or profit under the United States." Furthermore, he is "liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law."

Finally, impeachment is not a negation of the will of the people as expressed in the 1996 election. It is an affirmation of the people’s intention to govern themselves and their rulers every day of every year, through the deliberate process of the Constitution and laws as informed by public opinion. Elections are a necessary but not sufficient mechanism for Americans to govern themselves. "We the People" decided that a constitution should provide as well for situations that transpire in between elections, like suspected abuse of governmental power.

Who needs a videotape to suspect that President Clinton used his authority to serve himself instead of the nation? His deliberate, persistent, and self-acknowledged deception of the American people raises serious doubts about his fitness for the presidency. Forget about calls for resignation; we need impeachment hearings now.

Lucas Morel is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.