Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Impeachment is Office Politics

Stephen Lazarus


October 12, 1998

Impeachment hearings, here we come. After months of rumors, mud-slinging, and graphic revelations, the House of Representatives has decided by a vote of 258 to 176 to investigate whether President Clinton has committed actions that warrant his removal from office. Because impeachment is one of the most solemn duties given to Congress by the Constitution, every citizen must be concerned about how the hearings will be conducted. At least three scenarios are possible.

First, partisanship may dominate the inquiry. This will happen if members of Congress allow their commitment to party interests—Republican or Democratic—to prevent an impartial evaluation of the evidence concerning Clinton's misconduct. The inquiry demands of each Representative a level of wisdom far beyond the easy answers supplied by the "talking points" distributed by either party's leadership. It is an opportunity to administer justice on behalf of all citizens. If, instead, Republicans or Democrats use the deliberations primarily to score points toward future electoral victories in November or the year 2000, they will be selling justice short, adding to the nation's growing cynicism, and shirking the duties of their office.

A second possibility is that they will steer clear of the partisan route and choose instead to follow the polls. This, too, would be a dead end. Republicans and Democrats alike will be tempted to play it safe, follow the latest polls, and not jeopardize their own political futures by taking an unpopular stance.

However, as elected officials, members of Congress bear unique authority and responsibility to govern, which citizens responding to polls do not have. They possess the particular duty to make informed, principled decisions for the whole political community of citizens. To fulfill this duty, they must do more than mirror public opinion in their voting. The ever-changing will of the people is not necessarily a sure guide in all matters of governing. An impeachment involves complex judicial matters better settled not by a popular vote, but by those whose office equips them for the task.

Members of Congress have special powers and access to information that citizens do not have. Unlike a family's dinnertime banter, congressional deliberations must be based on constitutional criteria, not simply the details of the Geraldo Rivera Show or CNN's Crossfire. Pollsters admit that public opinion changes frequently and is difficult to measure. If members of Congress take their cues from polls or the media, they risk reducing their position of leadership to a mere conduit for the prevailing moods of the country.

What we must pray for is that Congress will choose a third option. Instead of allowing public opinion or partisanship to guide the inquiry, members of Congress should choose to uphold standards of justice by discharging the duties of their office. What would this entail? Congress must conduct a legitimate search for the truth. Has the President engaged in a pattern of obstructing justice in violation of his oath of office? Did he lie under oath in Jones v. Clinton and before a federal grand jury? Did he engage in witness tampering in his dealings with Monica Lewinsky and his secretary Betty Curry? If the President did abuse the powers of his office and betray the public trust, do those abuses rise to the level of "high crimes or misdemeanors" specified for impeachment in Article II of the Constitution?

To answer these questions, Congress will have to give careful and sustained attention to the legal and constitutional issues at stake. Only by fulfilling the duties of their office will members of Congress be able to determine if Clinton deserves to keep his. It is wise, principled argument--- not blind partisanship or obsessive poll-watching--- that will serve the nation well on the long road ahead.

—Stephen Lazarus, Research Associate
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”