Impeachment 101

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This is not the first time impeachment of a controversial president has happened. Neither was it the second, nor the third.

This was the United States of America’s fourth time to see its president impeached, but not removed from his office.

Hundreds of people gather in front of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump. It was one of 600 such rallies across the country on the eve of the historic impeachment vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. | Photo: "Impeachment Rally" by  Phil Roeder, Flicker is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Hundreds of people gather in front of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump. It was one of 600 such rallies across the country on the eve of the historic impeachment vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. | Photo: “Impeachment Rally” by Phil Roeder, Flicker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As Constitution of the United States promulgated in 1787 requires, “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.”

President Donald J. Trump was impeached by the United States House of Representatives (controlled by his political opponents, the Democratic Party having a majority in the chamber) late last year on the charge of “abuse of power and obstruction of Congress” related to other high crimes and misdemeanors as a result of having asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate supposedly in aid of Trump’s reelection campaign former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his family’s alleged ties to Ukrainian energy companies. The House Democrats made their move, and President Trump’s trial in the United States Senate began in January 2020.

Looking back at the history of impeachment and its success, one can look at previous presidential precedents and provisions of law. As to the provision of the United States Constitution allows for “The House of Representatives… (to) have the sole Power of Impeachment,” similarly providing that “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.” If a two-thirds vote to convict is attained in the Senate, the President is removed from office allowing the Vice President to step in.

However, such has not yet occurred, from the cases of Johnson whose impeachment trial vote failed by a single vote, to Nixon, Clinton, and Trump, because in each case aforementioned, the number of votes required from Senators to convict and remove has never been attained.

Impeachment and subsequent conviction and removal from office as a means of changing the holders of power has even up to now been rendered ineffective by many issues inherent within it. Firstly, there is such a high threshold of votes for Senators to pass and vote guilty in order to remove the Chief Executive, namely a two-thirds majority.

No single party has held a two-thirds majority in the upper house for a very long time, and thus it is difficult for Senators to remove a president without the votes required to do so. Secondly, there is the fact of political polarization owing to the personalistic operation of the presidential system.

In the most recent case, as President Trump was running for re-election, the Senators from his Republican Party who control a majority in the Senate closed ranks behind him, save for the lone “guilty vote” of Senator W. Mitt Romney on the first charge of abuse of power. This, and the fact that the trial and vote took place during an election year critical to the careers of so many Senators, effectively guaranteed an acquittal.

Conclusively, impeachment as a process when contrasted to votes of no confidence and parliamentary party “coups” or internal elections (in parliamentary systems) is clearly overlain with several implications which make it a clunky and unwieldy tool in removing a president deemed to have committed “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” during his time in office.

The former process is slow and deeply politicized, allowing what some may see as a guilty and incompetent chief executive to walk free and carry on. On the other hand, votes of no confidence are quicker ways to test if a chief executive still carries with him the confidence or consent of the members of the legislature he is also a member of, while internal party elections, although seemingly disruptive, provide a quicker and less bloody way for fresh leadership to come forward.

Perhaps America and the Philippines and all other countries used to prime-time personality presidential politics could learn a thing or two from the experience and history of impeachment?

NOTE: President Richard Nixon was not in the legal sense impeached. He resigned before the entire House could vote on the articles of impeachment approved by its Judiciary Committee.

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