Political science assistant professor discusses impeachment process

Published: November 15, 2019
Updated: December 04, 2019
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Ryan Williamson, an assistant professor in Auburn’s Department of Political Science, teaches courses in American politics, including Congress and the legislative process, the U.S. presidency, state and local politics, political parties and interest groups and electoral behavior and representation. Before coming to Auburn in 2018, he was an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow in the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.

With an impeachment process underway, Williamson answered questions about how the process works and what the next steps are, and he shared information on past impeachment proceedings.

Can you generally explain how the impeachment process works and where we are in that process?

Under the Constitution, the House alone has the power to formally charge—that is, impeach—a federal official. A House majority can accomplish this by adopting articles of impeachment, which are effectively written accusations.

The Senate alone has the power to try an impeachment and render a verdict regarding whether the president should be removed from office and possibly barred from holding office in the future as well. Two-thirds of Senators must agree to convict and remove.

In the House, after investigations are complete and articles of impeachment have been drafted, the chair of the relevant committee (most likely Adam Schiff in this case, or his designee) could call up the resolution containing the articles at any time other business is not pending, and the resolution would be considered immediately.

Under this procedure, a majority of the House controls the length of debate and can prevent any amendments. After some debate, the majority could vote to order the previous question, which brings the House to an immediate vote on the main question: whether to agree to the impeachment resolution, in this case. Passage only requires a simple majority—218 votes.

The House will also adopt a resolution in order to notify the Senate of its action. After receiving this notification, the Senate will adopt an order informing the House that it is ready to receive the “managers.” Subsequently, the appointed managers will appear before the Senate to impeach the individual involved and exhibit the articles against the president.

The Senate has not adopted standard rules of evidence to be used during an impeachment trial. The Presiding Officer possesses authority to rule on all evidentiary questions, but they may choose to put any such issue to a vote.

When the presentation of evidence and argument by the managers and counsel for the president has concluded, the Senate as a whole meets in closed session to deliberate. Voting on whether to convict on the articles of impeachment commences upon return to open session. 

How do the public hearings this week differ from those that were private last week?

The primary difference between the public and private hearings is the sensitivity of the information that is discussed. The purpose of using a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) is to ensure that classified and sensitive information is protected. The public hearings then allow the Democrats to present their case for impeachment prior to officially offering any articles of impeachment

Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson were both impeached and Richard Nixon faced a formal impeachment inquiry, are there any differences in their situations and the one President Trump is in?

Impeachments are a rare phenomenon, and presidential impeachments even more so. The House has only ever impeached 19 individuals: 15 federal judges, one Senator, one Cabinet member, and two Presidents. The Senate has conducted 16 full impeachment trials. Of these, eight individuals—all federal judges—were convicted by the Senate.

Therefore, each situation presents very unique circumstances. Johnson was especially unique. After ascending to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, Republicans in Congress were unhappy with Johnson’s support of southern whites. This created years’ long conflict between the two branches. The House actually decided to impeach Johnson but could not reach a consensus about what wrongdoings the president had actually committed.

In 1867, Congress overrode Johnson’s veto to pass a constitutionally dubious law called the Tenure in Office Act, which declared that the president could not fire his Cabinet officials without Senate approval. Johnson, however, fired his war secretary (a Lincoln appointee who supported Reconstruction), which provided the House with what they saw as an opportunity to impeach. He was ultimately acquitted in the Senate by one vote.

In 1973, revelations about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel emerged and quickly thereafter so did allegations that Nixon aides were complicit. There were subsequent attempts to cover up the malfeasance and suppress investigations into it. Nixon also taped his conversation discussing these matters, which made denying and fighting them exceedingly difficult. The House then quickly brought up three separate articles of impeachment, leading Nixon to resign instead of being removed from office.

Finally, Ken Starr had been conducting a sprawling investigation into the Clinton administration for years and discovered that the president had lied and obstructed justice to keep his extra-marital affair private. The House voted to impeach him, but he was acquitted relatively easily in the Senate as they concluded the crimes were not serious enough to warrant removal from office.

As previously mentioned, there are a variety of different circumstances surrounding these rare events. There is one common thread though—the process is always partisan. Members of Congress are primarily concerned with winning reelection. Even if they care about policy, they cannot realize any policy changes without first winning and maintaining a seat in the legislature. Therefore, impeachment should be considered in the same light as any other issue Congress votes on.

What happens next in the process?

As previously outlined, the House will continue its hearings and will (likely) eventually draft formal charges against the president. The House will then vote before the trial in the Senate can proceed. Historically, the process has taken an average of 4 months. Given this fact and what some congressional leaders have said on the matter in recent days, we likely won’t see the conclusion until weeks into 2020.

Johnson and Clinton were both impeached but neither were removed from office through impeachment, why is this?

There is no clear definition of what technically constitutes an impeachable offense. The only guidance provided by the Constitution comes in Article 2 Section 4, 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.” As previously mentioned, the Johnson case entirely revolved around policy differences, and the Clinton cases revolved around what was seen as relatively minor offenses in the grand scheme of things. Therefore, removing a president on those grounds could have established a precedent that members of Congress were not willing to live with after the fact. Creating too low of a threshold for impeachment could make politics even more contentious and volatile, which could in turn make legislating even more difficult and lead even more citizens disenchanted with politics.

What is the historical significance of these proceedings?

These proceedings are significant in a number of ways. First, they present only the fourth time that impeachment proceedings have been so far underway for a president. They are unique in that they do not solely revolve around policy differences (like Johnson), there is currently no evidence so incredibly damaging that the president and his party cannot refute the allegations (like Nixon), and the president is facing stricter charges and low overall approval (unlike Clinton). Even if the president is acquitted and maintains his place in office, the outcome will be unlike anything we’ve seen thus far in history.

Second, no matter the outcome, this will likely shape any future impeachment proceedings. As noted earlier, past congresses did not want to set the bar too low, but setting the bar too high for impeachment would essentially render this check useless.

Finally, these proceedings are taking place during an era of record high polarization and affective partisanship. This means the parties are clearly divergent ideologically and voters hold strong, negative views of the opposition. Depending on the evidence that comes out and how the public responds, this case could present an interesting test for members—especially those representing competitive states and districts. Party leaders will need their members to tow the party line, which could cost some members their seats and ultimately reshape the composition of Congress.