House GOP lawsuit is unprecedented

The House made history Wednesday. But not in a positive way.

For the first time in U.S. history, the House of Representatives has authorized institutionally suing a president. Neither the House nor Senate has ever done that.

“The founders probably didn’t intend this,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said in an interview. “They intended that if you wanted to sanction a president, you impeach him and remove him from office.”

President Barack Obama on the road in Kansas City Wednesday mocked the GOP and dismissed the resolution as “a political stunt.”

Beschloss called the lawsuit “unprecedented” and said it could create a means for any party that does not control the White House to discipline a president by bombarding him with these lawsuits.

The fear is that attempts to sue presidents could become a means for a hostile Congress to tie up a president when the members decide they want to hinder the ability of any White House to act.

Democrats and Republicans have sparred over the intent of the lawsuit, introduced by House Speaker John Boehner. Some conservatives have gone so far as to call for the impeachment of the president over the last several years, including former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin just last week.

Democrats glommed onto that, raising millions off the potential for impeachment, something Boehner says there is no chance of happening and called talk of impeachment Tuesday a “scam” started by the White House.

In fact, many observers believe Beohner’s lawsuit is one way of taking pressure off those calls from more activist members of his party.

At the heart of Boehner’s lawsuit is President Obama’s use of executive action.

“The only reason I’m doing it on my own is because you don’t do anything,” Obama said deriding House Republicans and defending his use of executive action.

The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly list any means other than impeachment to punish a sitting president, Beschloss noted.

When then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was brought up on bribery charges in 1973, in fact, his lawyers argued that a sitting president or vice president could be impeached, but not indicted under the Constitution.

The Solicitor general rejected that argument in a brief, stating that the president was immune from indictment but not the vice president, because he was not essential to the function of the federal government.

When the Republican-controlled Congress brought up former President Bill Clinton on impeachment charges in 1998, former President Gerald Ford wrote an op-ed asking Congress to censure Clinton, rather than attempt to impeach him.

The Republican members of Congress at the time rejected the notion on the basis that Congress only had the Constitutional power to impeach the president for his actions, according to Beschloss.

“Ultimately, impeachment is a totally political judgment,” Beschloss said. “The Constitution says high crimes and misdemeanors are the grounds for impeachment, but it is Congress that decides what that means.”

Support PBS NewsHour: