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Dec. 11 Opening Statements: Thomas Barrett (D-Wisc.)

  • More Transcripts From the Hearings

  • By Federal News Service
    Friday, December 11, 1998

    REP. THOMAS BARRETT (D-WI): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

    As we move toward consideration of articles of impeachment of a president for only the second time in the past 130 years, I recognize the gravity of the matter before us. For the decision we make today is important not only now, but important for future members of Congress and for our children and grandchildren as well.

    The president's actions were wrong. It was wrong for him to make false statements concerning his reprehensible conduct with a subordinate, and it was wrong for him to take steps to delay discovery of the truth.

    But the constitutional question is not whether his actions were right or wrong; the question is whether his actions rise to the level of an impeachable offense and, if so, should we invoke this drastic constitutional remedy of impeachment, set aside the only national election in this country, and remove him from office? And ultimately, the question is, what is best for the people of this country?

    To answer these questions, we have to ask another question: Who committed these sins? Were these the sins of Bill Clinton the president or Bill Clinton the man? To some, this is a distinction without a difference. But I believe the Framers of our Constitution contemplated a distinction when they wrote of "treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors." For if it was Bill Clinton the president, if any wrongdoing he committed was committed against the body politic, if it undermined our representative form of government, then it would be necessary to remove him from office, not to punish him, but to ensure that our democratic form of government is safeguarded. But if the sin were committed by Bill Clinton the man -- sins nonetheless -- the decision becomes more difficult.

    As our predecessors on this committee recognized 24 years ago, impeachment is reserved for grave offenses against the state, those that threaten our system of government. Not all crimes are impeachable. One must examine the conduct in question to determine whether it is impeachable.

    Most offenses undermine one thing or another; that is why they are proscribed by the criminal law. Most people would agree that running a red light does not fall within that narrow category of offenses that are impeachable, but if everyone did it, countless people would die on unsafe streets.

    So the question isn't whether lying under oath or perjury undermine the system of justice in a general sense; the question is whether the specific conduct represents a grave offenses against the state and is a threat to our system of government.

    Assuming that the evidence before us -- most of it hearsay untested by cross-examination -- did establish perjury and obstruction of justice, I would have to conclude that the matters the president's -- the president allegedly lied about, the matters he allegedly obstructed justice about, are not, except in the most attenuated, abstract sense, a threat to our system of government. Is case is not like Watergate, which involved the obvious and direct misuse of government power, and it is not a case of lying or obstruction on a matter of public concern.

    We cannot escape the fact that the president's misconduct related to his private life. It was not a grave and dangerous offense against the state. It does not threaten our republic, and we need not remove him to protect our democracy.

    I acknowledge that there are exceptions to the rule that high crimes and misdemeanors must relate to public conduct. If a president had committed murder, not an offense against our representative form of government, I would vote for impeachment. I believe I would be so offended by the immorality and the intrinsic wrongfulness of the act that our democratic system of government would have to be cleansed of the wrongdoing. The allegations against the president, although serious, do not rise to this level. So I must conclude that perjury per se does not constitute an impeachable offense as intended by our forefathers.

    This is where I pause. I pause because the allegations against the president do raise questions about his character. I ask myself, it were a Republican president in this predicament, what would I do? Would I maintain consistency and impose impeachment even if I both opposed his public policies and personal conduct? I pray that I would treat the two situations consistently. And I pray I never have to face that question.

    To those who fear that a vote against impeachment would mean that it's okay to lie, it's okay to mislead and deceive, I submit that this president has not and will not escape punishment. He has suffered a public humiliation that few will ever know. And humiliation is not the end of his troubles. If we reject impeachment in the next few days, we can censure and condemn him for his conduct. There is no constitutional bar to censure. It is within our power. More importantly, it is the just and appropriate remedy for this misconduct. For a man undoubtedly concerned about his place in history, this is no small punishment. He would be only the second president of the United States ever censured. What's more, we should not forget that President Clinton is subject to criminal prosecution after he completes his term of office. He is neither above the law nor below it. He can and should be treated like every other citizen who may have committed similar offenses.

    Unfortunately, the president's conduct is not the only unsettling component to our present crisis. I am also deeply, deeply troubled by the events leading up to the president's deposition in the Jones case. There clearly was a channel of communication between Ken Starr's office and Paula Jones' attorneys through Linda Tripp, and I believe her motives and actions, in part personal, in part political, cannot be ignored here. If we are to set aside our only national election, we must be confident that political enemies or political motives did not set the stage for this political morality play, for if they did, then there is a potentially greater danger here to our democracy than lying about sex.

    The grave act of setting aside a national election cannot be agitated by those forces that failed to prevail at the ballot box.

    I stress again that my deep concern about the Linda Tripp connection in no way excuses Bill Clinton for his wrongdoing. That is why it is important that he remain subject to appropriate criminal and civil action after he leaves office, and that is why it is important that this institution impose a sanction appropriate to the president's actions. That is why I favor censure. A censure reflects the gravity of the president's wrongdoing.

    I want to thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your decision to permit a vote on our censure resolution here in committee. I agree with you that it will foster comity. But I have another request, not just to you, but to all my colleagues on this committee. I have listened as many, if not most members on the Republican side of the aisle have asserted that this is a vote of conscience. And Mr. Schippers, in his closing argument, specifically noted the importance of voting one's conscience. I respect each and every member of this committee who votes his or her conscience. On a matter as important as this, party identification should not be, must not be the deciding factor; conscience must be.

    So my request to you is a simple and straightforward one: please let me vote my conscience, both here in committee and on the floor. Please allow our censure resolution to move to the Rules Committee either on a positive or negative vote. I, and many others in this Congress, should not be denied the right to vote our conscience, the right many here assert -- genuinely, I believe -- as their rationale for supporting impeachment. To deny us that right would be the rawest of raw partisan politics. It would confirm the fear that party leaders and not conscience are dictating this committee's actions. Not a single member of this institution should fear a vote of conscience. Not a single member of this Congress should be part of any plan to deny any other member of Congress the opportunity to vote their conscience on an issue of as grave constitutional import as this.

    Mr. Chairman, as you know, I joined this committee the day it received the Starr report. I am the most junior member. I honestly walked into the first hearing believing our proceeding would be nonpartisan. I don't know if I was more like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" or Gomer Pyle. I even thought that we might be sitting physically like grand jurors, individually, not divided by party like gladiators fighting a partisan fight. I was wrong. And I think many members of this committee on both sides of the aisle are disappointed on how partisan this has been. I don't think any of us intended it to be this way. Perhaps I am as naive now as I was when I first joined the committee, but I don't think so.

    I call it optimism, because I believe my colleagues on this committee recognize that our vote of conscience may be different from their vote of conscience. And I believe that you know in your heart of hearts that it would be a partisan tactic to prevent us from voting our conscience.

    Let's leave this room together, not as Democrats and Republicans; let us leave this room as Americans, hand in hand, and take the vote to the floor of the House of Representatives. Conscience will prevail, conscience should prevail, and if that happens, justice will prevail.

    I yield back the balance of my time.

    REP. HYDE: I thank the gentleman. Mr. Pease, the gentleman from Indiana.


    Copyright © 1998 by Federal News Service, Inc. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold or retransmitted without the written authority of Federal News Service, Inc. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of the original work prepared by a United States government officer or employee as a part of that person's original duties. Transcripts of other events may be found at the Federal News Service Web site, located at

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