For the first time since the Bush administration took office, three members of the House Judiciary Committee, Robert Wexler (D-FL), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), are calling for hearings on the impeachment of Vice President Richard Cheney.
Their position, while courageous, is not surprising. What is surprising is that it took this long for members of Congress to invoke impeachment, and that even now, they do so against enormous political resistance and cyncial indifference from the media.
No serious student of the Constitution would question that sufficient grounds exist to impeach both President Bush and Vice President Cheney. The Constitution provides that an Executive who puts himself above the law and abuses the powers of his office may be impeached, a point confirmed in the impeachment proceedings against President Nixon, for abuses such as illegal wiretapping.
There is little serious debate about whether Bush administration actions -- wiretapping without court approval (violating the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act), authorizing and facilitating mistreatment of detainees (violating US treaties and criminal laws), starting the Iraq war on a basis of lies, exaggerations and misstatements (an abuse of power) -- meet the constitutional standard.
So why hasn't a majority of Congress supported it? Twenty members co-sponsored Rep. Dennis Kucinich's resolution calling for the impeachment of Cheney, but bucked their leadership to do so. Democratic leaders took impeachment "off the table," apparently fearing it could hurt their chances in 2008.
Does the leadership defend the administration, contend that its actions are unimpeachable, or argue they don't rise to the level of abuse for which Nixon was impeached? Remarkably, no. They publicly say there is no time, and that impeachment proceedings would distract the Congress from other work and divide the country.
These arguments are laughable compared to the imperative to uphold the constitution. And even on their own terms, they are specious. Let's take them one at a time:
In the case of Nixon, the House officially instructed the Judiciary Committee to act in early February, 1974; the Committee finished voting on Articles of Impeachment on July 29, less than six months later. No presidential impeachment proceeding had taken place for almost 100 years, so the Committee had to start from scratch, analyzing the constitution and developing procedures for the impeachment inquiry. Now the relevant legal spade work is done and a road map for proper impeachment proceedings exists, Congress could probably conduct them even faster than in 1974.
During Watergate, the House Judiciary Committee conducted the impeachment inquiry. It didn't deter the rest of the House and the entire Senate from getting their work done, even with a war on. Even the Judiciary Committee also worked on other matters during impeachment, just as the Senate did during its trial of President Clinton.
Dividing the Country
Nixon's impeachment united the American people. The process was bi-partisan, demonstrating this wasn't just a Democratic ploy to undo an election. The fairness of the process, the seriousness of purpose, the substantial evidence all gave the public a strong sense that justice had been done. This reinvigorated the shared value that the rule of law and preservation of democracy are more important than any president or party.
Currently, this value is expressing itself in grass roots impeachment movements across America. The Vermont Senate, several state Democratic parties and many municipal governments have adopted resolutions supporting impeachment -- more state legislatures would have acted except for pressure not to from Democrats in Washington. Multiple polls show a majority of Americans supporting the impeachment of Cheney (a November 13 American Research Group poll says 70% of Americans believe Vice President Cheney abused his office), and slightly less then a majority supporting the impeachment of Bush.
The Democratic leadership tactic of stonewalling this widespread public sentiment is itself divisive, leading at least half the country to frustration, disaffection and shaken faith in our democracy. Only a sober, serious airing of evidence in hearings would heal the split.
When Nixon's impeachment process began, he had recently been re-elected with one of the largest landslides in history. No one made the calculation about whether impeachment was a political winner for Congress. Public opinion simply forced Congress's hand after Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. After the House Judiciary conducted impartial hearings and voted on impeachment, Congress's approval soared. Republicans were swamped in the November 1974 elections.
Whether or not they bring electoral rewards in 2008, impeachment proceedings are the right thing to do. Regardless of outcome, they will help to curb the serious abuses of this administration, and send a strong message to future administration: the Constitution means what it says -- no president or vice president is above the law.
Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman served on the House Judiciary Committee during Nixon's impeachment. She co-authored the 1973 special prosecutor statute, and co-wrote (with Cynthia L. Cooper) the 2006 book, The Impeachment of George W. Bush.