Impeachment: what is it and why are we still talking about it?

Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid switching on the television, checking social media or conversing with anyone with a basic understanding of the American political system for the past year, then you are most likely aware, at least to some degree, about the impeachment inquiry President Trump is facing. But whether you have followed the inquiry from its onset or have only heard about it in passing, everyone could benefit from a quick refresher on this important and relevant political process.


The power of impeachment can be found in Article II, Section IV of the United States Constitution which states, “the President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” While we most often associate impeachment with the President, it can also be used to remove the Vice President, Cabinet secretaries, other executive officers, as well as judges. 


The language of the Constitution also lays out the foundation of how and who should control the different aspects of the process. The impeachment inquiry takes place in the House of Representatives where, generally, the House Judiciary Committee first investigates the action for which the inquiry is being conducted. Once a resolution of impeachment is passed by a simple majority in the committee, it is opened to the floor of the House for a full vote. If a simple majority of representatives present in the House vote in favor of the resolution, the individual is considered impeached.


One of the main misconceptions about impeachment stems from the confusion many people have about the difference between impeachment and conviction. Contrary to common belief, formal impeachment is only the first half of the process to remove someone from office. After a person is impeached by the House, the Senate is responsible for trying the case, which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over. After arguments are presented and evidence is shown, the Senate reconvenes as a whole and votes to either convict or acquit. A two-thirds majority is required to convict. In the case of the President, if a two-thirds majority is reached, the President will be removed from office, and the Vice President will be sworn in.


Although a powerful tool, impeachment is seldom used as a redress. According to the History, Art & Archives, a collaborative project between the Office of the Historian and the Clerk of the House’s Office of Art and Archives, only 19 individuals have been impeached, of which only eight were found guilty and removed from office by the Senate. 


Historically, only four presidents have faced impeachment. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both impeached, Nixon faced impeachment but resigned before the proceedings could occur, and President Trump now faces impeachment due to his dealings with Ukraine. In the wake of the beginning of the public hearings against President Trump last week, the coming weeks will determine whether President Trump’s choice to withhold foreign aid from Ukraine is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election and whether the offense constitutes a “high crime or misdemeanor” as outlined by the Constitution. 


While knowing every detail of the impeachment process and the intricacies of the allegations against the President may seem burdensome, having at least a basic understanding of what the process is and why every news source is buzzing about it will help you to be a more active and informed citizen.

Photo: J. Moreno

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