Dec 13, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The normalization of impeachment

Data: Sources, compiled with the help of the House Historian's Office: “A Petition for Presidential Impeachment”; “The House Impeaches Andrew Johnson”; “Origins and Development of the House: Impeachment”; Hinds Precedents, Volume 3; The Age of Impeachment;; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

If the House votes next week to impeach President Trump, some lawmakers warn that impeaching presidents could become the new normal. Historians and constitutional experts say it won't go that far — but they do concede a drift in that direction.

Why it matters: If impeachment loses its taboo to become just another partisan instrument with implications for elections and fundraising, that would weaken its power as an emergency mechanism and further polarize Republicans and Democrats.

  • This is what's happened to government shutdowns, Supreme Court fights and filibusters.

You know the top lines: For nearly its first two centuries of existence, the United States impeached one president, Andrew Johnson, in 1868. But the pace changed in the last half century.

  • Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, ahead of certain impeachment. Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 but acquitted in the Senate. Now comes the effort against Trump, also expected to end in a Senate acquittal.

But are three cases enough to show a trend? Or does it simple exemplify poor personal judgment by three modern presidents, and a predictable response by another branch of government to provide a check and balance?

Details: A more thorough examination of impeachment efforts underscores the idea the taboo has been eroding.

  • Prior to Nixon, only five of 36 U.S. presidents had an impeachment resolution brought against them, according to the Office of the House Historian.
  • Random lawmakers targeted Grover Cleveland for crimes like the improper sale of bonds — and Harry Truman for using federal power to seize private steel mills to head off a national strike.
  • But there were roughly 40 impeachment resolutions and investigations into Nixon's conduct alone between May 1972 and the spring of 1974.
  • Five of the eight post-Watergate presidents saw multiple impeachment resolutions introduced against them: Presidents George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Trump. Most of them never went anywhere.
  • Barack Obama did not draw a formal impeachment resolution — but the House Judiciary Committee did hold a hearing to discuss impeaching him, and a Republican congressman introduced a "sense of Congress" concurrent resolution threatening him with impeachment if he took military action against Syria.

Historical experts agree that the proximity of the impeachment efforts against Nixon, Clinton and Trump have reduced the stigma around impeachment, but they maintain it's unlikely to be pursued unless a president acts so questionably as to trigger a serious debate.

  • Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law, tells Axios: "I do not see this as the beginning of a trend or more likelihood for impeachments in the future. I think it is the coincidence of having had a few recent presidents who have committed acts worthy of consideration as impeachable offenses."
  • Frank Bowman of the University of Missouri School of Law: "Prior to Nixon, Americans thought of impeachment as a dead letter. But once Nixon happened, he showed it can be used successfully as a tool."
  • Laurence Tribe, the Harvard Law professor and outspoken Trump critic, said political polarization and the rise of social media has made impeachment talk "increasingly common," but that the notion of using it for partisan reasons or personal dislike has actually receded since Clinton survived the effort against him.

Some Republican lawmakers nevertheless insist that the effort against Trump could have a long-term impact.

  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he's worried impeachment will be the "new government shutdown," something that used to be a huge deal and has now come to be expected.
  • Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said Democrats "have lowered the standard and said they can impeach President Trump again in the future."
  • Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said that "every president for the future of our country is substantially more susceptible to an impeachment for anything anyone in the opposition wants to impeach them for."

Others are dubious.

  • Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told Axios, "I don't anticipate that people are going to be looking to impeachment for a political purpose. It hasn't worked in the past in that regard, and I doubt it will work in the future."

Democratic lawmakers say they're concerned about the flip-side precedent: If Trump is not impeached, future presidents may be emboldened to abuse power and obstruct congressional authority.

The bottom line: Impeachment is less unthinkable than it used to be — but it still depends on a president's actions.

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