Barry McNamara  |   Published September 24, 2019

Impeachment 101

With impeachment looming in Washington, political science professor Andre Audette gives his classes an overview of the process.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Today in his political science classes, Monmouth College professor Andre Audette expects to talk about the word of the day – impeachment.

“Fortunately, this is not something that we take up every day,” he said.

ANDRE AUDETTE: ?A lot of people conflate impeachment with removal from office.? ANDRE AUDETTE: “A lot of people conflate impeachment with removal from office.”As much of the country talks about impeachment as well, Audette said it’s important to know the terms and their meanings.

“A lot of people conflate impeachment with removal from office,” he said. “Impeachment actually means just that the House of Representatives has found that there is enough evidence that a president or other elected official or civic official should continue through the process and see whether they should be removed from office. It’s just bringing charges against a president or other civic official, not their actual removal from office.”

Other calls for impeachment

Although impeachment is a serious situation for an elected official, it is also not uncommon.

“Just about every U.S. president has had calls for their impeachment, including George Washington,” said Audette. “In recent times, every president since Ronald Reagan has had some sort of formal effort to impeach them.”

Those proceedings have only moved on to the next step beyond the House of Representatives for two presidents: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Both survived the process, although in Johnson’s case it was by just a single vote. Richard Nixon resigned the presidency before impeachment proceedings were formally brought against him.

A simple majority vote in the House is required to move to the next step.

“The Senate has the actual trial, and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would preside,” said Audette. “It would look like any other trial. The Senate would then make the decision, requiring a two-thirds vote.”

Why it’s in the Constitution

Audette said impeachment is “an effective feature of a representative democracy … we have the ability to hold our elected officials accountable.”

He said impeachment was part of the British government during colonial times, and the framers of the U.S. Constitution decided it was necessary to include in their new government, as well, as a protection against tyranny.

“No public official is really above the law,” said Audette. “If they’re doing damage to the country, they should have evidence weighed and considered for removal from office.”

‘High crimes and misdemeanors’

Audette said what constitutes that damage is up for debate and needs to be weightier than the perception of doing a bad job or being unpopular. The framers’ wording about reasons for impeachment became “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

“What that term means is very vague,” he said. “The framers of the Constitution suggested it should be something serious. … President Harry Truman said it’s whatever Congress thinks it means at a given time.”

That shifting definition makes impeachment “an interesting Constitutional challenge,” said Audette.

“The Constitution does lay out the procedures for impeachment, but it’s very vague,” he said. “So how do we interpret the Constitution? That’s something that the Supreme Court has taken up, that’s something that Congress has had to clarify, that’s something that presidents have to face, so it’s something that involves many segments of the government.”

For now, the impeachment process is its early, fact-finding stages.

“It’s something we’ll need to see play out and what the various facts of the cases lead the House of Representatives and potentially the Senate to do,” said Audette. “It’s never a boring time to study political science, but this certainly brings a new element to it.”

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