What Distracts Us from Impeachment?

In July 2007 a polling company called American Research Group conducted the first and only poll asking whether the American public wants to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. Fifty-four percent said yes. Forty percent said no. Those are remarkable numbers given the relative lack of action in Congress or the media. There currently is a bill proposing three articles of impeachment against Cheney, but only twenty members of Congress support it, no hearings have been held, and the news media haven’t taken notice.

Support for impeaching President George W. Bush is slightly less than for Cheney, but still over twice what it was for impeaching Bill Clinton, even when that story had dominated the news for weeks. Bush and Cheney also have less public approval for the jobs they’re doing than any previous president or vice president since public opinion polls were first done. But the reason most impeachment activists argue that Bush and Cheney need to be impeached isn’t dislike for those individuals but rather fear of the precedent being set for future administrations. If this administration establishes the power to openly violate laws (such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act); to rewrite laws (using signing statements for the unprecedented purpose of announcing the intention to violate laws); to detain without charge; to torture; to intentionally mislead Congress; and to launch aggressive wars and occupations, then what, impeachment proponents argue, is to prevent future administrations from using those same powers and inflicting even greater damage?

Next to this fear for the future of our republic, some objections to impeachment appear almost trivial. For example, were Bush and Cheney both successfully impeached, convicted, and removed from office, this wouldn’t occur simultaneously and by surprise. Cheney would leave first, and a new president would be named à la Gerald Ford after Richard Nixon resigned. Exactly who that person is strikes me as far less significant than whether he or she is required to obey the law.

Of course, the Democratic leadership in Congress believes it to be of the utmost importance to keep Bush and Cheney around, the theory being that this will help Democrats in the November 2008 elections. This strategy isn’t just morally shallow but, as the historical record suggests, is likely to fail on its own terms. When the Republicans tried to impeach Truman they won big in the next elections. When the Democrats tried to impeach Nixon, they won big in the next elections. When the Democrats promised not to impeach Reagan, making the same arguments for restraint that they make today, they lost the next elections. (Numerous other examples can be found in John Nichols’ The Genius of Impeachment. )

But would impeachment be a distraction from other pressing work in Congress? Arguably, no. The same congressional members who make that claim will also universally tell you that they don’t have the votes to end the occupation of Iraq. And the fact that they could end the occupation by choosing not to bring up for votes any more bills to fund it is a secret even more taboo on Capitol Hill than the “I-word.” Their intention is to keep bringing up bills to fund the occupation while making noises about wishing the Republicans would let them end it. Representative Rahm Emmanuel (D-IL) has told the Washington Post that the Democrats want the war to still be around in November 2008. Ted Koppel reported on National Public Radio that Senator Hillary Clinton’s military advisor says she plans to still occupy Iraq at the end of her second term in the White House. So, ending the occupation of Iraq is not real work that this Congress might be distracted from by impeachment. A bill to end the occupation, if it made it through the Senate, would be vetoed. But so would any other decent bill on any other issue. Democratic members of Congress and their staffers have confided that passing bills and having them vetoed will not make them a “do-nothing Congress,” but rather make Bush a “do-nothing president.” Objecting that the public knows beforehand that it’s all theater falls on deaf ears.

Impeachment, as the one course of action that can’t be vetoed, turns out to be the only thing Congress can do. And impeachment proceedings that would put the White House on the defensive might actually lead to a backing off on veto threats, as they did under Nixon. But there’s a larger point: when in the world did reinstating the Bill of Rights become a distraction? The list of known impeachable offenses includes issues at the top of Americans’ concerns.

In addition, there are a number of dangers that make impeachment necessary and urgent. First, Bush and Cheney are highly unlikely to end the occupation of Iraq, even if Congress requires it, so impeachment is needed to accomplish that goal before thousands more suffer or die. Second, the administration is threatening to attack Iran. Only impeachment could check that crime before it’s committed. And third, should any catastrophe occur in the United States, Bush and Cheney have put in place procedures to establish martial law, a further deterioration of our democracy that must be avoided if at all possible.

So, impeachment is not a distraction. Still, resistance is high and takes the following forms on Capitol Hill:

    1. We can’t pass specific articles until after an investigation.
    2. We don’t have time for the investigation.
    3. We don’t have solid proof.
    4. Dennis Kucinich is running for president (so I won’t cosponsor his bill).
    5. We don’t have the votes to pass impeachment.
    6. You can’t impeach over policy differences because you oppose the war.
    7. The Speaker of the House is opposed.

There’s no easy answer to the last objection other than building the pressure to change Nancy Pelosi’s mind. But, looking to the past, the answer to initiating the impeachment process lies in introducing a resolution calling on the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether Bush and Cheney have committed impeachable offenses by refusing to comply with subpoenas. (And surely, someone other than Dennis Kucinich would be willing to introduce it.) When President Nixon ignored congressional subpoenas during the Watergate investigation, the House Judiciary Committee passed an Article of Impeachment declaring that his doing so was an impeachable offense. Moreover, cases in which an impeachment movement has forced justice without reaching a successful impeachment include: Nixon, Truman, Gonzales, and a number of others recounted in The Genius of Impeachment.

In January, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) said that he would act on impeachment if Bush and Cheney were to authorize an attack on Iran. That is not a price any impeachment proponent wants the people of Iran or the world to pay. Far better would be to remove them from office now–think of it as “preemptive impeachment.