Impeachment is the submission of formal charges against a public official. The U.S. Constitution grants the “sole Power of Impeachment” to the House of Representatives in Article I Section 2. In Article I Section 3, the Senate is allocated the “sole Power to try all Impeachments.” Moreover, Article II Section 4 states that, “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.”
The Impeachment Process The House Committee on the Judiciary serves as the organizing body for impeachment. After inquiry and debate concerning the facts of alleged offenses, the committee then decides whether or not to proceed with impeachment proceedings. The Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary may then propose a resolution to the full House stating if impeachment is appropriate and outlining the reasons why with specific articles of impeachment. The full House then debates and votes on the articles of impeachment. A simple majority vote is required for impeachment on each alleged article.
After the House passes articles of impeachment, the trial follows in the Senate. Rules and procedures for the trial are established in the Senate, and in a Presidential impeachment trial, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presides over the trial; the Senate serves as the jury. Upon hearing all the testimony and arguments from lawyers on both sides, the Senate meets in private to debate the verdict. The final vote is then taken in an open Senate session, with a 2/3 vote required for conviction. If a conviction is rendered, the Senate then votes to remove the President from office and may also choose to prevent the President from holding public office in the future.
Presidential Impeachments in U.S. History The House of Representatives has impeached two presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after the House Committee on the Judiciary adopted three articles of impeachment against him. President Gerald Ford later granted President Richard Nixon a “full and unconditional pardon.”
Radical Republicans favoring harsh treatment of the South during the post-Civil War Reconstruction grew angry at President Johnson for his leniency toward ex-Confederates and for his opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1867, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act requiring Senate approval for the President to dismiss office holders. President Johnson later fired his Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a Radical Republican, in defiance of the Act. Johnson’s actions led to his impeachment by the House in 1868 after which a Senate trial found him “not guilty” by one vote short of the two-thirds required for conviction (35-19), on May 26, 1868. Ironically, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Tenure of Office Act unconstitutional in 1926.
More recently, The Starr Report outlining the findings of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation into alleged offenses by President Bill Clinton sparked months of debate in the House about possible censure or impeachment in the fall of 1998. Many of the allegations centered on an improper relationship between President Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. On December 19, 1998, President Bill Clinton was impeached in a party line vote on two counts, obstruction of justice (221-212) and perjury (228-206). On February 12, 1999, the Senate acquitted President Clinton with 55 “not guilty” and 45 “guilty” votes on perjury and a 50-50 split on obstruction of justice.
Is Impeachment a Legal or a Political Action? In 1970, when he was House Minority Leader, President Gerald Ford (R-MI) described an impeachable offense as, “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” This statement affirms the political nature of the impeachment process. President A. Johnson’s struggle with the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction also serves as a reminder that the impeachment process can be highly politicized. Debate continues today over whether or not the decision to impeach President Clinton was justified by alleged offenses, or if it was the result of a political attack on his moral character. Whichever side of the debate one supports, impeachment represents both a political and a legal action.