Impeachment? Censure? Stigma is falling away from Congress' most severe punishments

Republicans in the House are increasingly threatening impeachment against President Joe Biden and his top Cabinet officials

Stephen Groves,Farnoush Amiri
Wednesday 28 June 2023 05:02 BST
Congress Impeachment Stigma
Congress Impeachment Stigma

House Republicans have held it over Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for months. Attorney General Merrick Garland is facing it too. And President Joe Biden seemingly isn’t far behind.

Driven by the demands of hard-right members, Republicans in the House are threatening impeachment against Biden and his top Cabinet officials, creating a backbeat of chatter about “high crimes and misdemeanors” that is driving legislative action, spurring committee investigations, raking in fundraising money and complicating the plans of Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his leadership team.

Long viewed as an option of last resort, to be triggered only for the most severe wrongdoing, the constitutionally authorized power of impeachment is rapidly moving from the extraordinary to the humdrum, driven in large part by Republicans and their grievances about how Democrats twice impeached President Donald Trump.

Republicans remain so opposed to Trump’s impeachments, in fact, that they are pressing for votes to expunge the charges altogether — an attempt to clear his name that is without direct precedent in congressional history.

“We’re seeing a generation of Republicans who are much more willing to test the boundaries of how much you can weaponize procedures,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian and political scientist.

McCarthy on Sunday made Garland the latest target of a potential impeachment investigation as Republicans examine how the Department of Justice handled the prosecution of Hunter Biden for federal tax offenses. It capped a tumultuous week in which hard-right Republicans forced a vote to send articles of impeachment against Biden to a committee for investigation and also voted to censure Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff for his remarks and actions during the 2017 investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia.

Some Republicans are pushing for yet another censure action, this time against Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson for his leadership of the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 insurrection.

In the past, lawmakers have reserved censure, a punishment one step below expulsion, for grave misconduct. When former Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, was censured in 2010 on a bipartisan vote for ethics violations, then-speaker Nancy Pelosi solemnly summoned him to the well of the House, where censured members must stand as the resolution is read in a moment of public shaming.

"We really tried hard to put aside the partisan considerations because we knew how sharp and potent the weapon (of censure) was,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, who was among Pelosi’s closest confidantes. “This thing used to be rare. Now, it’s in every cycle, in breaking news.”

When Schiff was censured last week, the proceedings quickly took on a carnival-like quality. Democrats, Pelosi included, streamed forward to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the well of the House. They heckled McCarthy as he read the charges — calling out “Shame!” “Disgrace!” and “Adam! Adam!” — until the speaker left the dais.

“What goes around comes around,” one Democrat could be heard shouting in the chamber. Republicans streamed from the chamber shaking their heads.

“That was wild in there,” said Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla. She had brought the censure resolution against Schiff, using a legislative tool that allowed her to bypass leadership and force a vote.

The fervor in the House for doling out punishment shows no signs of breaking — in part because lawmakers are reaping the media attention and fundraising dollars that are steadily replacing committee chairmanships as the locus of power in the House.

Luna, who is just months into her first House term after winning a Florida district formerly held by Democrats, was the subject of a Fox News interview in prime-time after her successful push to censure Schiff.

And the attention cut both ways. Schiff, who is running for a California Senate seat, seemed to relish the moment and leveraged it into a fundraising blitz.

“They go after people they think are effective; they go after people they think are standing up to them,” Schiff said in an interview on “The View,” one of several TV appearances he had in the aftermath.

Yet there’s a risk that Republicans' appetite for using the punishment powers could easily escalate into a more serious test of whether Congress is legitimately wielding power — and nowhere does that possibility loom larger than when it comes to Biden.

Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican who won reelection last year by fewer than 600 votes, forced a vote last week on an impeachment resolution against Biden for “high crimes and misdemeanors” over his handling of the U.S. border with Mexico.

Republican leaders were able to bottle up Boebert’s resolution, holding a vote that sent the matter to congressional committees for consideration.

Some Republicans, however, view it as a question of when, not if, Biden is impeached. Floor debate on the resolution took on the air of a dress rehearsal, as Democrats and Republicans debated whether Biden has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” with his handling of border and immigration policy.

Only three other presidents in U.S. history have been impeached — Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Trump, though none were convicted by the Senate. Should Republicans decide to make Biden the fourth, a system of checks and balances created by the framers could face a test like never before.

While the Constitution's impeachment standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors” is deliberately open-ended, the Republicans’ impeachment argument against Biden has centered so far on disagreement with his policy decisions, namely his handling of the southern border, which they say amounts to breaking his oath of office.

Zelizer, the political historian, warned that moving forward with impeachment on those grounds would have lasting consequences.

“It weakens the function of government, it undermines trust in this democracy, and it will leave the democracy weaker than when it started,” he said.

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