Impeachment is a rarely used process that is the first step towards removing a President from office. (It can also be used to remove judges and other governmental officials). Impeachment doesn’t refer to the removal of an elected official from office. Instead, it refers to a two-step process that could potentially, result in the removal of a specific government official.
Article II, Section 4, of the United States Constitution says:
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 concept of impeachment was debated over at the 1787 Constitutional Conference in Philadelphia. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin were among those who approved of it.
They were not the original creators of the concept, however. Impeachment came from a British common law that involved a proceeding instituted by a legislative body to address serious misconduct by a public official. In Great Britain, the House of Commons serves as prosecutor, and the House of Lords acts as judge in a impeachment proceeding.
The United States doesn’t have a House of Commons. Instead, the U.S House of Representatives is tasked with the job of bringing impeachment charges against federal officials as part of its oversight and investigatory responsibilities.
The process starts in the House of Representatives. Any member can make a suggestion to launch an impeachment proceeding. The Speaker of the House of Representatives (who is leader of the majority party) determines whether or not to proceed with an inquiry into the alleged wrongdoing. The Speaker of the House can decide not to have an inquiry. Or, the Speaker of the House can choose to have one. Another way to begin an impeachment inquiry is for the House to hold a floor vote on articles of impeachment without making use of a committee.
If the Speaker of the House determines that an impeachment inquiry should be launched, the task is typically assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, which was created in 1813. But, it doesn’t have to start there. The Speaker can have the House Intelligence Committee do an investigation. The results of that investigation can then be handed over to the House Judiciary Committee, who can draw up articles of impeachment.
Each article of impeachment is voted on separately by the House Judiciary Committee. Each article of impeachment can be passed with a majority vote. If one article of impeachment gets more than half of the votes of the committee — then the president (or other governmental official) is impeached. Of course, the committee can end up giving a majority of votes to more than one article of impeachment.
Before 2015, House committees were required to get a majority vote of committee members in consultation with the minority ranking member, before issuing a subpoena. If the committee could not produce that result, the subpoena was not sent.
In 2015, the House of Representatives had a Republican majority. Republicans changed the rules for (many) committees to allow the majority party chairman of a committee to issue subpoenas without consulting the minority party (in this case, the Democratic members of those committees). In 2019, the House was led by a Democratic majority, who followed the existing rules regarding the issuing of subpoenas in a committee.
The United States does not have a House of Lords, but it does have a U.S. Senate. The Senate is tasked with the power to try all impeachments. A committee of senators, called “managers”, act as prosecutors before the Senate.
The Senate sits as a High Court of Impeachment, and all senators consider evidence, hear witnesses, and vote to acquit or convict the impeached official. If that official is the President of the United States, the Chief Justice of the United States presides. Many people refer to the person holding that position as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict a governmental official. The penalty for impeachment is removal from office. According to the website of the United States Senate, since 1789, about half of Senate impeachment trials have resulted in conviction and removal from office.
If the Senate’s vote results in less than two-thirds in favor of conviction, then the government official remains in office, but is still considered to have been impeached. Why? It is because the process of impeachment had been completed.
What happens if a United States President is convicted in an impeachment hearing? There is a Presidential Order of Succession that determines who will become President. Typically, the Vice President becomes President, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives become Vice President. A new Speaker of the House, from the majority party, will be selected by the House of Representatives.
This blog was originally posted on Medium on November 21, 2019.
The Rules of Impeachment is a post written by Jen Thorpe on Book of Jen and is not allowed to be copied to other sites.
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