The Power To Impeach Is The Power To Preserve Self-Governance
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: …. (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 3)
Reports of possible wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton, during her tenure as Secretary of State, raise serious questions about whether her alleged misconduct rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors”, making it an impeachable offense. Since Mrs. Clinton is no longer in office, many people simply assume that the issue of impeachment must be irrelevant. As is often the case, however, taking the time to read and ponder the actual words of the Constitution raises questions about what we assume to be the import of its provisions. The penalty attendant upon conviction for an impeachable offense includes the possibility of a judicial sentence barring the offender from holding office in the future. This means that, if convincing evidence of malfeasance surfaces after an individual has left office, the offense can still be adjudicated with a view to making sure they are not, in future, given some new opportunity to betray the nation’s trust.
This possibility conforms with the forward-looking goal of the U.S. Constitution, “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Thus, people in every generation have a responsibility to alert those who come after them, warning them against pitfalls their proven experience has made known. Just as we should avoid bequeathing crushing debt or avoidable vulnerabilities to future generations, so we should do our best to expose hazards to proper administration and representation. And the Constitution’s provision regarding the sentence upon conviction for impeachable offenses confirms that generational responsibility.
I have written before about the general responsibility of Congress in this respect, and in particular about the crucial initiative entrusted to the U.S. House of Representatives. Every day some new controversy highlights the bad effects occasioned by that body’s historic dereliction of duty in this respect. But the rising tide of allegations, across party lines, as well as the lines of separation between the branches of government, make it increasingly clear that the Constitution’s provisions for impeachment and removal of official miscreants, even at the very highest levels of government, were exactly intended “for such a time as this.”
Perhaps there was some excuse, in the past, for neglecting the performance of this Congressional duty. But every day now, new events confirm that the absence of standing and permanent arrangements for dealing with allegations that involve impeachable offenses is fomenting confusion and distrust liable to shake the nation’s confidence in the viability of our self-government.
“That which is used develops. That which is not used wastes away.” This famous saying of Hippocrates (the ancient Greek physician who gave his name to the Hippocratic oath), is usually applied to the constitution of our individual bodies. But the experience of the American people suggests that it also applies as well to the constitution of government, especially when the great body of the people successfully asserts their claim to sovereign self-government. Second only to the neglect of republican principles summarized in the American Declaration of Independence, the failure to remember and apply Hippocrates’ observation may point to the main reason that, in practice, the constitutional self-government of the American people is wasting away.
The power to elect and, when necessary, remove even the highest government officials is one of the key distinctions between true self-government and irresponsible despotism, hiding itself behind an electoral façade. Our constitutional self-government is obviously in crisis. Many people who sincerely believe in it, on all sides, are admitting this fact. Instead of a competition in persuasion, which proceeds by common sense arguments and reasoning, our political discourse has degenerated into verbal brawling. Words are no longer wielded as tools to convince, but as weapons with which to intimidate and destroy.
Honest observers will acknowledge that “fake news” has its counterpart (and, perhaps, progenitor) in “fake politics.” Both are meant to veil or distract from the gradual dissipation of anything like responsibility sovereignty in the hands of our people. Transfixed by the boisterous displays of mock partisanship, the American people have allowed their most important constitutional prerogatives to be denatured, defamed and neglected. Undermined by licentious borrowing, the House of Representatives’ legislative initiative with respect to money bills has faded into pantomime. The Congress’s monopoly on the power formally to commit the nation to war or treaty obligations has become almost a dead letter.
Instead of bodies acting on behalf of the people, the Houses of Congress have become venues in which cliques and individuals serve their own interests, abusing governmental authority to win and enforce the allegiances that best serve their political and material ambitions. And they can do so without fear of routine supervision or oversight because there is no standing and permanent institutional means to process allegations of misconduct against them. Are there no members of the U.S. House truly committed to preserving the Constitutional sovereignty of the people? If there are, why are they failing to insist that action be taken to end the usurpation of the Houses’ Constitutionally mandated initiative in the impeachment process?
That initiative exists so that they may represent the responsible sovereignty of the people. Among other critical functions, it is supposed to help curtail fraudulent slander and libel, which competing factions are wont to use as ordnance in their political wars. As they do, they rip at the fabric of our civility, poisoning the prospects of the republican form of constitutional self-government the American people has enjoyed. We need a Permanent Committee on Impeachments in the U.S. House of Representatives, to establish a fair routine for dealing with allegations of past and present misconduct. This may not please the elitist faction party bosses. But it is vital to maintaining our sovereignty as a people. Unlike destructively unbridled accusations, the power to impeach is the power to preserve self-government. It’s long past time to routinize its use, so that confidence in our capacity for decent self-government does not continue to waste away.
Views expressed in op-eds are not the views of The Daily Caller.