Presidential Impeachment in History and Procedure

This issue brief, Presidential Impeachment in History and Procedure, was co-authored by Bob Barr, who represented Georgia’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003.

To an increasing degree, impeachment has become a tool of contemporary American public policy. Since 1973, for example, at least 30 impeachment resolutions against sitting presidents have been introduced in Congress. Given his well-documented participation in the coverup of the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon was the subject of 17 impeachment resolutions. Five have been introduced already against President Donald Trump, three were introduced against President George W. Bush, and President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush were the subject of two resolutions each. Only one impeachment resolution was introduced against President Bill Clinton.

In the modern day, the course of action has been a directive from the House as a whole to the Judiciary Committee to begin an investigation of impeachable possible offenses. Impeachment resolutions are “privileged,” which means that a Member of the House of Representatives can, if he or she wishes, force a vote from the floor. For example, in 2018 Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) forced votes on two of the impeachment resolutions against President Trump. Both resolutions were tabled, effectively closing the door to future consideration. Rep. Green has indicated he plans to reintroduce an impeachment resolution in the First Session of the 116th Congress and force another vote on the floor. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) introduced a separate impeachment resolution at the beginning of the 116th Congress, which convened January 3, 2019.

Because of this activity, and the virtual certainty that the notion of impeaching President Trump will continue throughout the 116th Congress, an objective historical and procedural analysis of impeachment is deemed crucial to understanding the environment in which the remainder of the President’s first term of office will unfold (on both sides of the political divide); regardless of whether formal impeachment proceedings actually take place. This paper explains the background of and procedures applicable to impeachment, summarizes the impeachment proceedings against the three presidents who have been subject to it, and concludes with a summary of several aspects of impeachment that are relevant to the current situation involving the Trump administration.

While not advocating for or against impeachment, this paper casts doubt on the known public case against President Trump. At the outset, for example, in the authors’ view, any potential attempt to impeach President Trump based on allegations of wrongdoing that occurred before he took the oath of office would be illegitimate.

As of this writing, House Democratic leadership has downplayed any attempt to impeach the President. Committees of the House, however, appear to be quietly attempting to build a case for impeachment. “Every day it becomes more and more difficult to say we’re not interested in impeachment,” one House Democrat has reportedly said.

Policy disagreements, differing interpretations of statutes, or anger and resentment over an election are not legitimate grounds for impeachment. Violations of the law while in office or the deliberate refusal to enforce the law, however, would be. Whether the House will move forward with impeachment is of course an open question; but the effort, barring evidence of serious impropriety while in office, likely would be futile considering the Senate is controlled by Republicans; few, if any of whom, would be willing to cast a vote for conviction and removal from office. This scenario makes it no less important that we undertake to study the history, procedures and particular relevant aspects of impeachment in the current environment, to best prepare for such eventuality.