better late than never
January 24, 2008 2 Comments
The basic idea behind the American Constitution is as simple as it is elegant: checks and balances.
It was designed to prevent any one branch from getting too carried away with itself. Congress makes the laws, but they need the President’s stamp of approval. The president can negotiate treaties, but the Senate approves them. The Judiciary plays referee, and those folks get appointed and approved.
With this and the very real memory and fear of a powerful tyrant who ruled above the law, they made sure to include in the power of impeachment, for the relatively vague phrase of ‘crimes and misdemeanors.’
But a look at Federalist Paper #65, by Alexander Hamilton, provides a better idea of what they mean by that:
The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.
(the emphasis on “political” is Hamilton’s.)
Because of this, however, he also acknowledges the danger that they become “regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
To help with that risk, they even split the power of impeachment again, with the House of Representatives bringing charges before the Senate, while the Chief Justice presides.
Two presidents have been impeached in our history, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Neither was convicted by the Senate and in both cases, the impeachment hearings were decidedly political and that, rightfully so, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
However, the very real purpose of impeachment, the check on the consolidation of power in one branch, is not one that should so easily be tossed aside. The Democratic leadership, in a seemingly political decision, has decided to take impeachment “off the table,” as they say, despite a multitude of offenses which very easily fit the criteria Hamilton so elegantly laid out.
True, President Bush would probably not be removed from office and the whole procedure would jam up the system in a year when the focus should be on the future, not the past. But it is nearly the responsibility of Congress to at least try to acknowledge that the President has gone too far, consolidated too much power and needs to be taken out behind the woodshed and checked and/or balanced.
Yesterday, another lawmaker got on board and, as Dan Froomkin points out in his Washington Post column (which opens with a report of a new study detailing 935 lies told by the Bush administration in the run-up to the war in Iraq), Rep. Tammy Baldwin spelled it out quite well in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel op-ed piece:
“The abuses of this administration demand a formal response. Congressional oversight is a fundamental part of our constitutionally-proscribed system of checks and balances.
“I had hoped that Congress could begin to repair the damage that has been done to our democracy, our Constitution and our standing in the world, so that censure or impeachment could be averted. Unfortunately, this administration not only fails to accept responsibility for its misdeeds, but it also blocks attempts to right the wrongs and address the tragic consequences of those misdeeds. We have seen the American people’s will thwarted by the exercise of veto power. We have seen subpoenas ignored. We have seen signing statements used to circumvent the law of the land.
“If we fail to take action to either impeach or repair the damage, then the next president will ‘inherit’ unchecked powers. Unchecked powers are unacceptable no matter who is president.”
That last line is the killer.
And she’s right: it is no longer about President Bush. It is about restoring the balance of power that served us so well for the first 224 years.