A History of Impeachment in Congress
Do you support Congress's impeachment power?
by Countable's Trump Impeachment Coverage | 9.30.19
With the recent announcement by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) that the House of Representatives will pursue an impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump, here’s a look back at how impeachment has been handled by Congress in the past.
The House of Representatives has formally considered articles of impeachment concerning three presidents:
- In 1868, the House impeached President Andrew Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act by removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whom the law was primarily designed to protect. The Senate fell one vote shy of the two-thirds majority necessary for a conviction on three articles of impeachment, at which point the trial was adjourned and Johnson wasn’t removed from office.
- In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon related to obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress stemming from the Watergate investigation. Before the full House could vote on the articles of impeachment, Nixon became the first president to resign after further incriminating evidence emerged and it became clear support for his presidency in the Senate had deteriorated to the point he’d be convicted and removed from office.
- In 1999, the House impeached President Bill Clinton for lying under oath to a federal grand jury and obstruction of justice. The charges which stemmed from his efforts to conceal an extramarital sexual relationship during a sworn deposition related to a sexual harassment lawsuit against him from his time as Arkansas governor. The Senate acquitted Clinton on votes of 45-55 and 50-50, both well short of the 67 guilty votes needed for conviction.
The Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton impeachments are only two of the 19 times the House has impeached a federal official. Here’s a look at the other times.
- Sen. William Blount (TN) became the first person to be impeached in 1797 on charges of conspiracy to help Great Britain seize Spanish-controlled territories in modern-day Florida and Louisiana. After the House impeached Blount, the Senate expelled him from the chamber before his impeachment trial and dismissed the charges for lack of jurisdiction.
- Only once has a Supreme Court justice been impeached by the House: the Senate ultimately acquitted Associate Justice Samuel Chase on charges of arbitrary and oppressive conduct of trials in 1804.
- 13 district court judges have been impeached. Of the total, six were found guilty and removed from office (three of whom were also disqualified from future office), four were acquitted, and three resigned before a Senate trial concluded. Additionally, a commerce court judge was found guilty, removed from office, and disqualified from future office in 1913.
- Only one Cabinet member has been impeached by the House: Secretary of War William Belknap was acquitted by the Senate in 1876 on charges of criminal disregard for his office and accepting payments in exchange for making official appointments.
How does impeachment work?
The impeachment process is outlined by Article I, Section 3 and Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution. Here's how it works:
- The House of Representatives is first to consider the articles of impeachment, which can include charges of treason, bribery, or other “high crimes and misdemeanors” (which can be political offenses, rather than criminal). A simple majority vote is required to approve the articles of impeachment, which is 218 votes when the House is at its full complement of representatives.
- The Senate could then choose to conduct an impeachment trial before the full Senate or a committee of senators. If it’s the president on trial, as opposed to a judge or another federal official, the trial would be under the supervision of the Supreme Court’s chief justice instead of the vice president. A two-thirds majority vote (ordinarily 67 votes) is required to convict and remove the impeached official from office.
Within the House of Representatives, the modern era presidential impeachment investigations of Bill Clinton & Richard Nixon (who resigned before the full House impeached him) began after the House agreed to resolutions specifically authorizing an impeachment inquiry.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) has argued that voting on an authorizing resolution would be unnecessary in this case on the grounds that his committee is already engaged in an impeachment investigation, but House Republicans disagree based on recent precedent. It’s unclear whether the full House will consider such a resolution, or if it will rely on Pelosi's guidance, but the distinction could become significant if the impeachment is later subjected to judicial review as some impeachments of the past were.
The Constitution doesn’t explicitly require the Senate to carry out a trial if articles of impeachment are approved by the House, so senators may attempt to use parliamentary rules to table the impeachment articles. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K) indicated in an interview with NPR several months ago that the Senate would immediately begin a trial if it receives articles of impeachment from the House.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Theodore Davis (artist, died 1894 / Public Domain)
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