Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Impeachment: Why It is Vital

"The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other officers, and shall have the sole power of impeachment." - Constitution of the United States (1787), Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 5.

"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." - Constitution of the United States (1787), Article 1, Section 3, Paragraph 6.

"Judgment of cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States; but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial judgment and punishment, according to law." - Constitution of the United States (1787), Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 6.

"The President, the 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." - Constitution of the United States (1787), Article 2, Section 4.

shall, verb participle; an auxiliary used in formal speech: (a) to express futurity in the first person, and determination, obligation or necessity in the second and third persons..." - Webster's Second Unabridged Dictionary

The tragedy of our current government is in a missing shall. According to the Constitution of the United States, the President shall be removed from office upon impeachment and conviction for high crimes and misdemeanors- there's no option. Unfortunately there is no clause that states that Congress shall impeach and convict the President if and when he does commit high crimes and misdemeanors. Congress has the option to ignore the President's conduct... and, by ignoring it, endorse it.

Of course, it's easy to understand Congress being reluctant at this point. On July 6 an American Research Group poll showed that 46% of respondents favored beginning impeachment hearings against George W. Bush in the House of Representatives- only one point less than the 47% opposed. (The same poll showed a clear majority of 54% for impeaching Vice President Cheney.) That spurred a rash of "yay! impeach now!" posts on various blogs and LiveJournals, but it should be tempered by two other polls coming out about the same time: USA Today / Gallup showing only 36% favoring impeachment hearings and 62% opposed, and Rassmussen unveiled a poll showing 39% in favor, 49% against. Averaging the three polls gives 40.3% in favor of impeachment... a number not much greater than the level of support in 1998 for impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton, which was an average (from six polls) of 36% according to Time blogger Ana Marie Cox. Popular support is not there.

And why isn't it there? I did a small nonscientific poll courtesy of LiveJournal, and among the questions was whether or not Bush should be impeached. The reasons given by those who said no to impeachment were on two grounds. First, the votes aren't there in the Senate to convict- and thus impeachment would be a waste of time. Second, impeachment would backfire against the Democrats- thus giving the Republicans back the White House and Congress and ensuring that the policies of Bush and his cronies are perpetuated.

I disagree with both these points, but it'll take me a bit to explain why.

First, let's look at what George W. Bush has done which would qualify as high crimes and misdemeanors. C-SPAN has a good article about what that phrase means. High crimes means just that- actions which are criminal under the law. Misdemeanors means- or meant at the time of the writing of the Constitution- actions which, while not strictly illegal under written law, served to injure the nation or the system of government itself. Using this test, of the three articles of impeachment passed by the Judiciary Committee against Richard Nixon- who clearly deserved impeachment-only one article was impeachment for high crimes (obstruction of justice). The other two were for abuse of office and for exercising powers not granted to the President by the Constitution- which, although they undermined our system of limited government, were either not illegal by statute or were illegal but unenforcable.

(Side note: that last link is only the second time I've seen a .info domain that wasn't a spam site. Alas. But I digress...)

So, what actual crimes has Bush committed? We only know of one for certain: the illegal and unwarranted search and seizure embodied in the NSA's domestic wiretap program. Bush has confessed that he did it, in direct violation of statute law. He defends the program as an extension of his war powers as Commander in Chief- powers which are defined nowhere in the Constitution, and are therefore questionable at best. Other crimes may come up in investigation- for example, the ordering of torture of prisoners in violation of the War Crimes Act, the deliberate destruction of White House records in the GOP email scandal, or the hiring and firing of federal attorneys on political grounds- but the current stone wall of "executive privilege" can only be overcome if the investigation is done on the grounds of possible impeachment, which trumps executive privilege.

But there's more to Bush's criminal conduct in the Oval Office than what actual statute laws he has broken. His misdeeds are not limited to tapping phones, ordering torture, destroying records, or politicizing the Department of Justice. George W. Bush deliberately used misleading or outright wrong intelligence to drum up support for the invasion of Iraq. He's manipulated the use of government secrecy to conceal corporate wrongdoing and push an anti-science, anti-environment agenda, while at the same time using strategic declassification to destroy his enemies and distract the public from his own misdeeds. He's held people in prison without habeas corpus, then had his stooges make his imprisonment and torture of those prisoners legal ex post facto. He's used his office to make select corporations billions, if not trillions, of dollars in profit at American taxpayer expense. He's done a lot of other things, too... but most, if not all of these, are not strictly speaking illegal, because there's no actual law against exceeding the legitimate powers granted the office of the President.

Despite this, some people still argue that nothing Bush has done constitutes an impeachable offense. He might have committed crimes, he might have abused his office, but it's not bad enough to warrant throwing him out of office, they say. However, it's important to remember that there is no other means of punishing someone in office, according to the Constitution, except by impeachment. In fact there's a very specific principle of law that states that no person serving in political office can be prosecuted for actions taken while performing that office until after they leave- if ever. In short, there is no means whatever for stopping a President out of control except impeachment.

And let's not mince words: the President, and his Vice President, are definitely out of control. Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic has come out in favor of Cheney's impeachment, which as of this writing has thirteen sponsors in the House, but his article applies just as well to Bush. Both men believe, as Richard Nixon did, that the President is only accountable once every four years- when he is elected. For the rest of the time, the President is all-powerful, accountable to no one, subject to no law, and limited by no aspect of the Constitution. In short, he's an elected monarch- king for four or eight years- unless he is impeached.

And here's something important to note: sovereign immunity extends, in many cases, for the lifetime of the former officeholder. That means that if George Bush is not impeached, and he is allowed to leave office on January 20, 2009, the odds are extremely good he can never be tried in criminal court for anything- ANYTHING- he has done in office. Impeachment is the only way he can be made liable to the criminal courts.

That's what's on the table. If George W. Bush is not impeached, he and Cheney and all their cronies and supporters will go forever unpunished, forever unaccountable. There is no lesser punishment available than impeachment- censure is not merely unconstitutional, it's powerless and without effect.

Now to get back to the two main objections against impeachment- that the votes aren't there, and that the Democrats will lose if they try it.

First, the issue of the votes. We know there is a majority, although a slim one, which will vote at least one count, and probably more, of impeachment in the House. That means that, if impeachment comes to a vote, Congress will at least say that the President's conduct is criminal and will not be tolerated. The one bit of good that came out of the 1998-9 impeachment of Clinton was that the House of Representatives upheld the principle that perjury and obstruction of justice were wrong. (And yes, I think perjury should be impeachable, and I believe Clinton should have been convicted, no matter what the lie was about. The more prominent and powerful the criminal, the more severe should be the punishment, to show that power should not block justice.)

But if Congress fails to act- if Congress ignores all of Bush's crimes, fails to even vote on impeachment, and lets him leave office untouched- then Congress has in effect admitted that Bush committed no crimes, that his actions were within his legitimate powers as President. Signing statements, use of military intelligence to spy on peace protesters and political enemies, wire taps, Guantanamo, Abu Gharaib, and all the rest will not be evils to be rooted out- they will be tools left in place for the next President, and all Presidents thereafter, to use as they see fit.

In short, if we want to repudiate the principle of the "unitary executive," or elected monarchy, and if we want to make clear that Bush's actions in office are illegal, unconstitutional, and intolerable, impeachment must at least be attempted. To fail to at least make the attempt is to acknowledge by silence the justice and rightness of Bush's assertions of executive power.

This leads into the second point. Suppose Congress does not act, the Democrats win the White House, and a Democratic President is sworn in on 1-20-2009. That Democratic President would then have the power to use executive privilege to make every single action, every single conversation, every aspect whatever of the executive branch of government wholly secret from every single citizen of the United States. That President would have power to hold people indefinitely, incommunicado, with no legal venue to challenge their imprisonment. That President would have power to kidnap people off the streets of the world, torture them, and then dispose of them as they saw fit. In short, that President would have unlimited power to do anything and everything that President wanted... and thanks to the unchallenged precedent of George W. Bush, there would be no way to stop him or her.

Bill Clinton, Democrat, was a slick, two-faced, double-talking slimeball from Arkansas who had more rumors and scandals surrounding him than any President since Harding and before George W. Bush... would you trust him, or his wife, with
the same power Bush now claims?

Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat, expanded a war in Vietnam on a bold-faced lie, lied even more about the conduct of the war to the people, used intimidation and blackmail to get his way in Washington, and used the powers of his office to attack his enemies... would you have trusted him with the same power Bush now claims?

Woodrow Wilson, Democrat, sent the United States armed forces into half a dozen countries to overthrow their governments, from Haiti to the Soviet Union. He ordered the imprisonment of tens of thousands of American citizens strictly for their political beliefs. He completed the segregation of the Federal government and military and worked to destroy the few remaining protections black people had against the use of the law to enforce race prejudice. Would you trust Woodrow Wilson- a bigot, a xenophobe, an enemy of free speech, and a warmonger- with the same unlimited power Bush now claims?

No President, no matter their party, no matter their beliefs or intentions, should ever have so much power. In many of the specific powers involved, no one in government should have them at all.

But Bush currently has it, and he's using it, and he will not willingly relinquish it until his term of office expires.

For the sake of our Constitution- for the sake of our freedom- George W. Bush must be impeached, convicted, and removed from office. Preferably Dick Cheney should go first, to give Bush a chance to name a successor that keeps Pelosi out of the Oval Office, but both should go regardless of any other consequences. Even the Iraq War comes second to impeaching Bush- because Bush has vowed, repeatedly, that America will not withdraw from Iraq while his presidency lasts, and Congress has proved it can't stop the Commander in Chief from sending troops anywhere he wants.

Bush must be impeached- or else we give the Presidents to come unlimited power and, in turn, place ourselves wholly at their mercy.

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