It is now official.
Certain members of the Republican Party in Washington, D.C., are prepared to draft articles of impeachment against President Barack Obama.
For what high crimes and misdemeanors might the commander-in-chief be prosecuted?
Not to worry. We’ll figure that out later.
I jest not. At a town hall in Oklahoma last week, Senator Tom Coburn responded to an attendee’s demand for the president’s head by assenting that, on the question of impeachment, “I think you’re getting perilously close.”
To be precise, the questioner accused the Obama administration of being “lawless,” to which Coburn replied, “I think there’s some intended violation of the law in this administration but I also think there’s a ton of incompetence.”
In any event, Senator Coburn conceded that, for the moment, he could not identify a presidential transgression that would justify impeachment proceedings, adding that he is not sufficiently versed in such matters to make an informed judgment one way or the other.
He is not alone. The truth is that no one quite knows what an impeachable offense really is, because it’s one of those nebulous legal concepts that can be made to mean whatever one wants it to mean.
In theory, Congress’s impeachment powers are an essential component of any democratic republic—a check by the legislature on the actions of the executive, to ensure the commander-in-chief and his deputies do not abuse their authority as servants of the people.
In practice, not so much.
During the censure of President Bill Clinton, Democrats accused Republicans of using impeachment as a merely political instrument—a means of embarrassing and one-upping someone the GOP simply didn’t like. The opposition was itching for an excuse to bring Clinton down, the theory went, and his lying about oral sex became their smoking gun.
The implication, then and now, is that the whole Monica Lewinsky episode was an unnecessary and trivial use of Congress’s power to impeach, which was intended only for the most egregious of presidential crimes. That even if Clinton’s actions did constitute “obstruction of justice,” it was not the sort of obstruction that posed an existential threat to the American republic.
The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t make a difference. For all that is unclear about the principle of impeachment in the United States, a rudimentary reading of history makes it perfectly plain that it can be employed at any time for any reason.
In Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton characterized impeachment as retribution for “those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
Benjamin Franklin, in typically pithy fashion, offered that impeachment, and even removal from office, was justified whenever the president “rendered himself obnoxious.”
In other words, the “original intent” of America’s founders was not for impeachment to be particularly rare or exceptional. Rather, it was meant to be used in any instance in which the Big Cheese got out of line, with the yardstick for what constitutes “out of line” planted wherever Congress sees fit. Historically speaking, one could argue that Congress has broached the subject too little, rather than too much.
The problem today is twofold.
First, we live with a national legislature that is shaped by political loyalty even more so than during the Clinton years, meaning that any possible future vote to impeach President Obama will be a purely partisan exercise. Regardless of the merits, Democrats will rally to the president’s defense, while Republicans will vote “Aye” as reflexively as they have to abolish Obamacare, which they have done 40 times thus far.
On the other hand, we also live with an executive branch that, in the last several decades, has exerted ever-greater authority over the other branches and over many aspects of American life. Activities and programs that used to be unthinkable are now routine (wiretapping, drones, Gitmo, etc.), with executive fiat becoming the rule rather than the exception.
In short: The America we presently inhabit would seem a prime target for the periodic article of impeachment, yet is represented by people incapable of drafting one properly.
Is this an irony of politics, or is it precisely what one might expect? Perhaps it is both.
What I fear in any case—as Commissioner Gordon might put it—is that we have been saddled not with the government we need, but with the government we deserve. A government that cannot seem to accomplish anything except for what it has no business accomplishing in the first place.
And if this is indeed the case, then the most heinous high crimes of all have been committed not by our elected officials, but by us.