Originally posted on October 21, 2019.
If Trump’s missteps warrant an impeachable offense, why are Democrats not voting to conduct the impeachment inquiry? Why are they not proudly holding hearings in public with due process, rather than behind closed doors with selective leaking?
In Andrew McCarthy’s book, Faithless Execution, he deals with the thesis that because the Framers feared an agglomeration of power in the presidency they were creating, they endowed Congress with significant checks on the executive. “The ultimate one was impeachment,” which was to be reserved for truly abominable misconduct.
(The Framers) understood that governance would involve tussles between the political branches and episodes of overreach — whether out of incompetence, malevolence, or urgency — for which the extraordinary impeachment remedy would be gross overkill. Routine disputes involving the propensities of both the legislature and the executive to act outside their authorities would be handled by lesser remedies. Congress, most importantly, was given the power of the purse and significant power over executive agencies (to create them, to limit their authority, and, in the Senate’s case, to approve their leaders).
The Framers naturally thought congressional control of the executive budget would obviate the need to resort to impeachment. Lawmakers could defund dubious executive initiatives and withhold funds necessary to carry out the president’s priorities; this would pressure the executive branch to comply with statutes as well as congressional demands for information and policy modification. The ultimate question of a president’s fitness would be left to the sovereign — the American people, exercising the franchise.
With Donald Trump in office and impeachment in play, that adage is repeated so often it seems platitudinous. But it states a vital truth: The mere existence of misconduct that the House might judge impeachable does not mean the Senate — by a two-thirds supermajority — would remove a president over it. That fact, coupled with the inherent societal discord impeachment is bound to cause, has historically discouraged the House from commencing impeachment inquiries, even for arguably impeachable offenses.
The upshot is that impeachment can never be successfully invoked — in the sense of both filing articles of impeachment and ousting the president from power — absent a public consensus, cutting across partisan lines, that a president needs to be removed. Only such a consensus would move members of the House and Senate, who must face voters. Therefore, a public political case has to be made for impeachment. It is not enough to show that a president has overstepped here or there. The public must be convinced that these excesses are so serious, so indicative of unfitness, that it is worth putting the country through the trauma of removing the chief executive.
Impeachment – the Ultimate Power
Moreover, we are just one year out from an election in which, if Trump is as bad as Democrats say, the voters will remove him. Yet, Trump’s approval rating hovers at around 43 percent, close to what Obama’s was a year before his reelection. Trump could certainly lose, but he stands a decent chance of being reelected. Hence far from a strong consensus for his removal, there will be zealous protest against impeachment by a significant segment of the public.
Consequently, the Republican-controlled Senate will swiftly reject the House Democrats’ impeachment articles as a partisan stunt — as precisely the abuse of power the Framers feared. And woe betide the next Democrat president seeking the bipartisan cooperation needed to govern.
A Gross Imbalance in the Political Branches
Our constitutional system will be damaged because impeachment will be discredited. That will not make it any less indispensable than Madison judged it to be. Yet its invocation will be even less likely in some grievous future instance, when a presidential abuse of power actually does imperil the nation. We will have a virtually omnipotent president. As a practical matter, there will be no viable congressional check — no impeachment, no power of the purse — to rein the president in. The powers of the competing political branches will be in gross imbalance, making functional separation of powers impossible.
As the Framers would tell us, that is not a prescription for the preservation of liberty.
More from Andrew McCarthy here.