An Impeachment Primer
In case anyone needs a refresher.
The place to start, as most people know, but that the broader conservation often seems to forget: “impeachment” does not mean removal from office. Rather, impeach is the process by which a formal declaration recommending removal from office is made by the House of Representatives. It is analogous to a grand jury issuing an indictment.
Article I, Section 2 states: “The House of Representatives…shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”
Being Impeached leads to a trial in the Senate which decides whether or not removal is to take place. Removal requires a 2/3rds vote of the Senate, and if the President is being tried, the Chief Justice* presides over the trail (otherwise it is one of the few constitutionally defined duties of the VP).
Article 1, Section 3:
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
In addition to removal, the Senate can also issue a ban against further service to the federal government (although it does not have to do so**):
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: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.
It should be noted, as the quotation from the constitution above states, that the Senate cannot issues a criminal penalty, that is left to the criminal justice system once the officer-holder has been removed.
In teaching this process I have often referred to it as administrative in nature: it is how the federal government fires presidents and judges, for example. It is not a legal process insofar it has nothing to do with applying the laws to the actions of the office-holder in question. While the House may well impeach for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” it does not establish legal guilt in any of these matter. Indeed, the House (and the House alone) determines what constitutes “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Impeachment is rare. Only two Presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have been impeached. Johnson came just a vote shy of removal, while Clinton was never any real jeopardy of removal. Richard Nixon would have been impeached, and likely would have been removed, had he not resigned before formal impeachment proceedings could be fully initiated.
There have been 19 impeachments total in the history of the US. Eight have resulted in removals, seven in acquittals, three in resignations, and one in dismissal of charges. Fourteen were judges (the most recent was in 2010), two were presidents, one was a cabinet secretary, and one a Senator.***
I think it is important to note that impeachment was designed as a way to limit the President from acting in a monarchical fashion. Also, the Framers thought that separation of powers would make the Congress eager to check the President. One thing that they did not count on, as I keep stressing, is the degree to which political party affiliation would bridge the institutions. This means that politicians are typically far more loyal to their party than they are to their institution. That is: congressional Republicans are far more interesting in protecting their leader in the White House than they are in protecting the Congress from Presidential malfeasance.
*Fun fact: the only reason we know that the constitution requires a Chief Justice is this passage.
**For example: Alcee Hastings was removed from his federal judgeship in 1989 and later ran for, and won, a seat in the House of Representatives (where he still serves).
***The first impeachment was of US Senator William Blount. The charges were dismissed on the grounds that the Senate expelled him before the trail.