Presidential Impeachment

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By: Dr. Anne Cizmar, associate professor, EKU Department of Government & Economics

Purpose of Impeachment

The U.S. Constitution sets up a system of separation of powers, where each of the three branches of government is responsible for separate functions. The legislative branch, Congress, makes the laws. The executive branch, including the president and bureaucracy, enforces the laws. The judicial branch, including the Supreme Court and other federal courts, interprets the laws. To ensure that the powers are maintained for each branch of government, and to prevent anyone person or entity in the government from becoming too powerful, the U.S. Constitution also specifies a series of checks and balances where each branch of government can check or limit the other branches on important functions of government. Examples of checks and balances include the presidential veto, Senate confirmation of presidential appointments, and judicial review.

One important check specified in the U.S. Constitution is presidential impeachment. Presidents, and other members of the executive and judicial branches, can potentially be impeached and removed from office by Congress. This serves as the ultimate check against presidential authority. The Founders wanted to ensure that everyone would follow the rule of law and no one would be above the law.

Understanding Impeachment

The Constitution stipulates that presidents can be removed from office for “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The Constitution is not exactly clear about what all types of actions might be worthy of impeachment and removal from office. It does specify that Congress will carry out the process. The House of Representatives has the responsibility of impeaching the president, meaning that it conducts an investigation and votes to impeach by a simple majority vote. This charges the president with a crime or crimes. At this point, a president is officially “impeached.” The second step in the removal process is for the Senate to try the president on the articles of impeachment. To remove the president from office requires two-thirds super majority vote. When the president is being tried, the chief justice of the Supreme Court serves as the judge presiding over the trial. Many other details of the process are left for Congress to determine.

Is Impeachment Used Often?

Impeaching a president is a serious action as it serves as the ultimate check on presidential authority; if a president is removed from office, it takes away all of a president’s powers. Only three presidents have been impeached in U.S. history: Johnson, Clinton, and Trump. President Andrew Johnson served from 1865 to 1869. Johnson came to power following President Lincoln’s assassination. His impeachment focused on the Tenure in Office Act, but he was a controversial president over his enactment of Reconstruction following the end of the Civil War. He escaped removal from office by one vote. President Bill Clinton served from 1993 to 2001. His impeachment focused on whether he lied under oath about an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky. President Donald Trump is currently the U.S. president. His impeachment focused on the abuse of power while holding up foreign aid to Ukraine.

President Nixon was not impeached for the Watergate scandal. It is likely he would have been impeached based on the support for impeachment in the House of Representatives at the time. However, Nixon resigned from office before the possible impeachment.

How Does Impeachment Impact the President?

Impeachment is a rare occurrence, and so it’s hard to conclusively state the impact of impeachment on a president. When looking at the two recent presidents who were impeached, Clinton, and Trump, it is unclear how much the president was negatively impacted by the impeachment. Approval ratings for both presidents were heavily shaped by partisanship, with both having high favorability ratings from people identifying with their own parties, and low approval ratings from people identifying with the opposing party. However, the overall approval ratings from these presidents didn’t really go down due to the impeachment.

It’s impossible to know whether the impeachment would have impacted President Clinton’s re-election as he was term-limited out as president for the 2000 election. Based on his approval ratings when he left office, though, it didn’t seem to hurt him among the electorate. It is similarly unlikely that the impeachment will have any electoral implications for President Trump in the November 2020 election.

It’s also difficult to conclude whether an impeachment hinders a president’s ability to function in office in terms of governance. Once a president is acquitted of the charges, he has the full powers of his office to use. In terms of promoting legislation through Congress, both President Clinton and President Trump were before a divided government (at least one branch of Congress is controlled by the party opposing the president’s party), making it difficult for a president to get legislation passed regardless of impeachment.

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