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Why the founders let Congress define impeachment-worthy crimes

The power to impeach a federal official such as the president has been exercised rarely in American history, and U.S. Constitution mentions the word only a handful of times. What were the founders thinking when they included that power, and how have public views of these powers evolved over time? Judy Woodruff looks back with presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a power that has been exercised only rarely in American history: the power to impeach a federal official, even a president.

    The U.S. Constitution mentions impeachment only a handful of times. Article 1 assigns the sole power of impeachment to the House of Representatives, and assigns the sole power to try all impeachments to the U.S. Senate, where a two-thirds vote is needed to convict.

    Article 2 of the Constitution describes what offenses may be cause for impeachment and removal: treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

    But how did the impeachment power come to be in the first place? And have public views about these powers evolved over time?

    Some questions for presidential historian Michael Beschloss, who joins us now.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss, so, the founders, where did they come up with this idea of impeachment in the first place?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Well, the idea was that a lot of the founders, and when the Constitution especially was being written, the whole system, the whole new America was designed as a way to be different from England, with monarchs and the despots of Europe and tyrants and so forth.

    They wanted to make sure that no president ever became a tyrant or abused his power. And they were thinking of them in terms of men in those days.

    And so the result was that impeachment was supposed to be a crucial check on presidents who perhaps behaved badly. But among the founders, there were two groups. One was a group that, you know, feared power and wanted impeachment to be used if a president strayed.

    Others were sort of in the spirit of Alexander Hamilton that wanted strong presidents, strong central government. They were worried that the power of impeachment would be used sort of like a vote of confidence in the British Parliament, that, if members of Congress didn't like something that a president did, some policy, they would impeach him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So they came up this term, as we just cited, for reasons of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

    How did they pick those terms?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    That was basically a product of the fact that they couldn't agree on exactly what the grounds for impeachment would be.

    They were sure that treason and bribery would be grounds for impeachment. They weren't sure about other things. So, as with so much else of the Constitution, they decided to leave it to Congress to interpret.

    Gerald Ford, in 1970, much, much later, a little bit casually said grounds for impeachment are whatever a majority of the House of Representatives says it is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And over time, you were telling us that our political leaders looked at this and looked at the distinction between getting rid of a president or another central leader in our government just because we disagree with their policies, vs. because they have done something really terrible.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    That's right.

    I mean, the intention was very much to reprimand a president for having done something that could be interpreted as treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

    James Madison, when he was looking at those things, he said, you know, unfitness would be one reason. Negligence would be another learn. Perfidy would be another reason.

    But they knew that it would depend on Congress to make the decision.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we look back. Impeachment has only been invoked, what, a handful of times in the 243-year history of our republic.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Michael, three of those in the last 45 years. Why?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Because people have experienced impeachment processes in the last couple of generations, perhaps they're a little bit more prone to use than they would have before.

    If you went before Richard Nixon, you would have to go all the way back to Andrew Johnson, 1868, to look for an impeachment process in history.

    And that was one that historically wasn't well thought of, because, historically, Andrew Johnson was saved from removal by a Kansas senator named Edmund Ross, one vote.

    And Ross essentially said, I think Johnson shouldn't be impeached because I don't think his infraction has been large enough. And also he said, essentially, that he thought that Johnson was being impeached for reasons of policy, as we were talking about earlier, rather than because there was a — there was treason, bribery, or another high crime.

    And that generation of Americans came to agree with that. So there was a reluctance to go to impeachment later on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, as we said, just since Richard Nixon, this is now the third time, Congress looking seriously. They have got an impeachment inquiry under way right now.

    Does it say that our system is more political than it used to be? What do you think it says?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    I think there are two schools of thought.

    One would be that the impeachments of the last number of years were done for political reasons. Richard Nixon would have said that, for instance. He said that the move to impeach him in 1974, he said — and these were his words — was an effort to overturn the mandate of 1972.

    Others would say that, in the case of Nixon and in the case of Clinton and later in our own time, that these are cases of real infractions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump is saying he won't cooperate in any way with this House inquiry.

    How does that compare with how other presidents have cooperated or not?

  • Michael Beschloss:

    There has been evidence of that in the past, historically.

    James Buchanan, there was a movement against him, and he said, I will not cooperate. It didn't go very far.

    Richard Nixon, one of the three articles of impeachment against him was contempt of Congress, because he refused to cooperate with subpoenas.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because he refused to cooperate.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then you were also telling us Bill Clinton, President Bill Clinton, did cooperate.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    There was no such article of impeachment. In the Clinton case, there were only two.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Beschloss, looking back for us, thank you very much.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Pleasure always, Judy.

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