The Costs of Trivializing Impeachment

President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Sunrise, Fla., November 26, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

In the absence of public objection to the politicization of impeachment, it is apt to become the new normal.

Resorting to a vague “abuse of power” theory, the House Judiciary Committee Friday morning referred two articles of impeachment to the full House on the inevitable party-line vote. The full House will impeach the president next week, perhaps Wednesday, also on the inevitable party-line vote. The scarlet “I” will be affixed to Donald Trump in the history books. He will not be removed from power by the Senate, however, and he has a fairly good chance of being reelected by the voters.

In sum, then, we are exactly where the Framers hoped we would never be when they added the impeachment clauses to the Constitution: in a governing system in which impeachment has been trivialized into a partisan weapon for straitjacketing the incumbent administration, rather than being reserved as a nuclear option for misconduct so egregious that Congress must act, transcending partisan, factional, or ideological considerations.

What will be the cost of trivializing impeachment this way?

I do not think that question will be answered in the Senate. It will be answered in the election next November. I fear that the answer will be banana republic-style dysfunction in government and a chasm of divisiveness in the body politic that may not be bridgeable.

That is because I believe the voters may enable Democrats to retain control of the House. In the absence of public objection to the politicization of impeachment, it is apt to become the new normal.

That does not necessarily mean we will continue to have the level of dysfunctional governance impeachment now entails. Even now, although the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry has chewed up an inordinate amount of committee and floor time, the House appears to have reached agreement with the White House on a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, as well as government spending for fiscal 2020. No one is taking impeachment all that seriously.

This has been obvious not only on Capitol Hill but in the Beltway media. Think about the Sunday political talk shows. It has become standard for pundit panels to divide into two segments. In the first, journos ponder the tactical maneuvering toward impeachment and such concerns as the potential effect on Democrats holding seats in Trump-friendly districts. Then, after a commercial break, that panel returns to analyze the state of the 2020 race — which Democrat will emerge to challenge President Trump? That is, everyone takes for granted that the impeachment machinations they just discussed are irrelevant. Trump is not going to be removed, he is going to be the GOP nominee. No one thinks impeachment will render him less formidable; in fact, the main attribute most Democrats look for in a candidate is electability against Trump, not issue consistency or ideological purity.

As our Rich Lowry notes in his column today, the Trump impeachment seems inconsequential and “unhistoric,” notwithstanding that it is only the fourth time in 230 years of constitutional governance that we have reached this point. (Only two prior presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have been impeached by the full House. Richard Nixon resigned after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment but before the full House could vote on them.)

If the new normal becomes politicized impeachment on comparatively trivial grounds, the government may function marginally better during future impeachments than it has during this one. Impeachment will come to seem less like a crisis that puts other urgent government business on hold. Yet, that will be cold comfort because there will be many more impeachments.

Moreover, these impeachments will be bitterly divisive. It is a commonplace for the party out of power to accuse the president of abusing power; but now, the party’s base will demand that impeachment follow. As Congress comes to see itself as a standing grand jury for conducting criminal investigations (under the guise of “abuse of power”), it will be harder to attract quality people to fill critical administration positions. Such people always have other attractive options besides government service. Power is a lot less alluring if it means prohibitive lawyer’s fees and a working environment where everyone is under suspicion.

In Faithless Execution (2014), I argued that our system needs a credible impeachment threat because the Constitution’s other means of reining in executive excess (particularly, the power of the purse) are no longer effective. My point was that impeachment needed to be credible, not routine.

My contention was, and remains, that a political case has to be built for impeachment because the question of whether power should be stripped is a political determination. But there’s a critical caveat: Unless misconduct is so egregious that a public consensus forms that would induce two-thirds of the Senate to oust the president, the House should not impeach. Not only are the governmental and societal downsides of impeachment deleterious; an unsuccessful impeachment effort is likely to incentivize more, rather than less, presidential misconduct.

Trivializing impeachment gives us the worst of all worlds: Impeachment will become a less credible check on presidential misconduct, but it will still poison our politics and compromise our government’s effectiveness.

Is that our new normal? I think it may be. If President Trump is reelected, impeachment will be proven trivial. If he is defeated, his supporters and many other Republicans will blame a politicized impeachment and demand that the next Democratic president be impeached. Most importantly, if the House remains in Democratic control, it will signal that a significant plurality of the population, maybe even a majority, is comfortable with politicized impeachment.

What goes around comes around . . . and around . . . and around . . .

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