Do Impeachments Mean Anything Anymore?

Democracy Examined

The Topline

The overuse of impeachment is weakening checks and balances, not strengthening them

With the Iowa Republican caucus now in the books, the 2024 primary season is officially underway. Donald Trump handily won the contest, which is not surprising, but it really ought to be. Trump has praised dictators and echoed their language at campaign rallies, and his lawyers have argued in court that the assassination of political rivals is covered by presidential immunity. And that’s just in the last 30 days.

Any one of these would have been disqualifying for many voters in our recent past. But some Iowa voters aren’t just unfazed by it; they want it. While you wrap your brain around that, consider this: we wouldn’t be here at all if a few more Senate Republicans voted to convict Trump and then bar him from running again at his second impeachment trial in February 2021. Instead, we’re now waiting on the Supreme Court to determine if Trump is eligible to run again. With the presidential election less than 10 months away, it’s not optimal.

In a perfect world, an impeachment would have been the end of it. But in these imperfect, polarized times, impeachments aren’t what they used to be. We can’t count on representatives to criticize their own party, even under extreme circumstances. Now Trump is polling better than ever. —Melissa Amour, Managing Editor

Who’s Getting Impeached Now?

Earlier this month, the nation learned that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had been hospitalized for complications from cancer without him telling anyone in the White House. Austin has rightfully earned criticism for breaching standard operating procedure.

After the news was made public, Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale said last Friday that he will “strongly consider” forcing a vote on articles of impeachment against Austin if House Speaker Mike Johnson doesn’t bring them to the floor.

The move got us thinking about impeachment. As a constitutional process intended to address “high crimes and misdemeanors,” does Austin’s failure to communicate his health condition rise to that standard? The founders made the impeachment process intentionally rigorous to prevent its politicization. Are impeachment powers being used as they were designed? Let’s dig in.

What You Should Know

House Republicans have been pursuing an impeachment inquiry into President Biden in an attempt to determine whether he personally benefited from his son Hunter’s overseas business dealings. So far, they’ve come up with… not much. House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer this week sounded resigned.

“I would vote to impeach him, but I’m not going to lose any sleep whether he gets impeached or not because we know the Senate’s not going to convict. My job was never to impeach.” —Republican Rep. James Comer of Kentucky

In addition to Lloyd Austin, two other Biden Cabinet members have also fallen under an impeachment cloud. Hearings have already begun for Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas for his handling of the border crisis. Meanwhile, Rep. Comer suggested in an interview that he would be amenable to impeaching Attorney General Merrick Garland if he refuses to arrest Hunter Biden for contempt of Congress. Still, not everyone is on board.

“I think that stuff is not going anywhere. I think there are enough distractions in general.” —Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana

But it’s not all political theater. In the case of ex-Rep. George Santos—whose alleged criminal activity led to his becoming the sixth House member ever to be expelled from Congress—more than 100 of his fellow House Republicans voted for his ouster last month. Democratic Sen. John Fetterman’s recent calls to expel fellow Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez are also notable.

“Now, accused of selling his honor and our nation for a $24,000 watch. Accused as a foreign agent for *two* nations. How much more before we finally expel @SenatorMenendez?” —Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania on X

But those are exceptions. More and more often, impeachment or comparable punitive measures—or the threat of them—are being used as tools of political retribution.

How We Got Here

It wasn’t always this way. More than a century passed between the impeachment of former President Andrew Johnson and the resignation of the impeachment-threatened Richard Nixon.

“Impeachment is so serious, severe, and rare that it should not be considered unless the subject has committed a crime, or the subject has committed indisputable corrupt conduct while in office.” —Former Justice David Prosser

Then just 25 years passed between Nixon’s departure and the more politically divisive impeachment of former President Bill Clinton. Yet, there was still some small measure of bipartisanship displayed during the proceedings.

“In 1998, a handful of Democrats crossed the aisle to vote for Clinton’s impeachment, and dozens of Republicans voted against two of the articles of impeachment against him, sinking them. Twenty-four years before that, it was Republicans who pressured Richard Nixon to resign from office before the House could impeach him.” —Political correspondent Domenico Montanaro

And then came Donald Trump, for whom divisiveness has often worked to his advantage. It followed that his two impeachment trials were decided almost entirely along partisan lines, because the substance of the cases had become less important than protecting the party brand.

“American politics has arrived at a remarkable place. The country and its leaders are growing more partisan, fewer people are persuadable in elections, and Republicans and Democrats view each other with an increasingly nastier edge.” —Political correspondent Domenico Montanaro

What People Are Saying

So how do experts advise we return to a time when the impeachment process was reserved for “high crimes and misdemeanors” and launched with solemnity and a sense of duty that transcends party? First, highlight that anything less is unconstitutional—and often pointless.

“Put simply, on one hand, even if successfully impeaching and removing a Cabinet officer could change the policy of a presidential administration, using impeachment for that purpose would be contrary to America’s constitutional design. On the other hand, given that removing a Cabinet secretary is profoundly unlikely to change policy, such an impeachment would almost certainly be futile.” —Frank Bowman, emeritus professor of the University of Missouri School of Law

Removing the incentives would also help. Currently, building a media and political following is as easy as promising to file impeachment papers against an opponent—whether or not there’s any solid evidence of a crime.

“I do think for some members [of Congress], this is a kind of rush, a PR stunt for that member. The word ‘impeachment’ is catnip. They’ll get mentioned on cable. And they’ll use it as a political club for political reasons to advance their own politics.” —Brad Woodhouse, senior adviser to the Congressional Integrity Project

Finally, we must demand responsibility from our elected leaders to treat the impeachment power with restraint and respect—so it can be taken seriously by the people, regardless of party.

“The term now is just being thrown around now left and right, which diminishes the significance and seriousness of it.” —Former Republican Rep. John Kasich of Ohio

These changes are critical if we hope to avoid sliding further into an unthinkable alternative.

“It’s this whole thing that’s scary going on in this country, that if you can’t defeat people’s votes then you do it in some other way.” —Former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman, who was impeached by political opponents in 2018 

  • House GOP hits pause on Hunter Biden contempt vote —POLITICO
  • Rep. McCaul claims GOP could impeach Mayorkas by ‘end of this month’ —The Hill
  • Ranking every Republican impeachment attempt from least to most likely —Newsweek
  • Bob Menendez claims ‘persecution’ in Senate floor remarks after latest allegations —NBC News
  • Wisconsin leader pivots, says impeachment of state Supreme Court justice over redistricting unlikely —Associated Press

  • Johnson on the spot: Congress readies ‘laddered’ March funding patch as shutdown looms —POLITICO
  • Trouble in Georgia: Georgia DA Fani Willis breaks silence about Donald Trump case prosecutor —USA Today
  • You don’t say: Threats of political violence are injurious to democracy too —The UnPopulist
  • Food for thought: The ground rules of a democracy —The Freedom Academy with Asha Rangappa
  • Give this a listen: America vs. itself: Political scientist Francis Fukuyama on the state of democracy —GZERO

  • Ecuador: Ecuador declares control over prisons, frees hostages after eruption in ‘war’ with drug gangs —CBS News
  • Iran: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard attacks ‘anti-Iranian’ groups in Iraq’s Erbil —Al Jazeera
  • Taiwan: Taiwan loses another diplomatic ally as Nauru recognizes China —The Washington Post
  • Ukraine: Ukraine claims it destroyed Russian spy plane in attack over Sea of Azov —CNN
  • Yemen: Houthis, undeterred by strikes, target more ships in Red Sea —The New York Times

Hey Topline readers, you remember the drill. We want to hear your reactions to today’s stories. We’ll include some of your replies in this space in our next issue of The ToplineClick here to share your take, and don’t forget to include your name and state. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!