Can the Congress Investigate the Clinton Administration Fairly?
May 19, 1998
in this forum:
Has politics tainted the investigation process? Is this anything new? Is there any way to conduct an investigation in a truly non-partisan way? Could the investigation backfire on the republicans next election? With the Republicans having such a slim House majority, how can there be a house committee with a two-thirds Republican majority for the Speaker to move the immunity question to? Has there been a decline in the quality of reporting on political scandal? Sam Calloway of Bangor, ME asks: Everyone is talking about the possible political ramifications of the Burton tapes fiasco, but I wonder if there is a more fundamental problem. If the time comes, and I know it is extremely hypothetical at this point, that the House must deal with impeachment proceedings, will these actions and Rep. Burton's and Gingrich's statements taint the very serious business of impeachment? It seems no matter what the charges against Clinton, the House impeachment proceedings would be an ugly, partisan affair.
William Connelly, Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University, responds:
The current Burton-Waxman partisan warfare calls to mind Alexis de Tocqueville's famous observation in "Democracy in America:" "To a foreigner almost all the Americans' domestic quarrels seem at the first glance either incomprehensible or puerile, and one does not know whether to pity a people that takes such wretched trifles seriously or to envy the luck enabling it to do so."
The partisan infighting on the House Government Reform Committee certainly seems puerile at times, suggesting -- as the questioner does -- that impeachment hearings could indeed be an ugly, partisan affair. Yet impeachment hearings would not involve "trifles." Rather the constitutional principles and political stakes would be enormous: a presidency may hang in the balance. One might reasonably expect House Republicans and Democrats to address impeachment in a more sober fashion than we are seeing at present. Look for Members on both sides of the aisle to bring a greater sense of institutional responsibility to the actual task of impeachment hearings. The likely committee to conduct impeachment hearings would be the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by the widely respected Henry Hyde (R-IL). Hyde will set the right tone; even partisan Democratic firebrands such as Dave Obey (D-WI) evince respect for Chairman Hyde. Just as Congress embraced a larger sense of institutional responsibility when facing the question of war in the Persian Gulf, Members will likely rise to the occasion this time as well.
Remember, too, that while the House impeaches, under the Constitution the Senate has the sole power to try all impeachments. And when the Senate tries a President of the United States, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the Senate. Should we proceed that far, both Congress and the country will take seriously the enormous responsibility.