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Dec. 10 Opening Statements: William Delahunt (D-Mass.)

  • More Transcripts From the Hearings

  • By Federal News Service
    Thursday, December 10, 1998

    REP. BILL DELAHUNT (D-MA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

    I would like to ask each of you to imagine you've been summoned to defend yourself in court. You don't know what you're charged with because there's no indictment. The prosecutor has spent four years investigating your financial dealings. But when you get to the courtroom, he only wants to talk about sexual indiscretions. He sends the jury a 445-page report telling just his side of the story and releases thousands of pages of secret grand jury testimony to the public.

    He calls none of the witnesses quoted in his report, so you can't challenge their accuracy. In fact, he calls only one witness, himself. Then it turns out that he's never even met your chief accuser. The judge allows new charges to be raised in the midst of the trial, but then drops them. He warns that you will be convicted if you do not offer a defense, then when you do so, he tells you not to hide behind legal technicalities.

    The scene I've just described wasn't dreamed up by George Orwell or Franz Kafka. It's not a Cold War account of Soviet show trial. In fact, it's similar to what's taking place here in America during the course of this impeachment inquiry. We are about to impeach the president of the United States on charges that never even would have been brought against an ordinary citizen. We have delegated our constitutional duty to substantiate those charges to an unelected prosecutor. We have called no witnesses to testify to the charges except the prosecutor himself, and he admitted he has no personal knowledge of the facts and never even met Monica Lewinsky. None of his witnesses were subject to cross examination to test their credibility, despite the majority counsel Mr. Schipper's statement that they should be.

    Having put before the public a one-sided case for the prosecution, some members of the committee have suggested that the president has the burden of proving his innocence. When he has attempted to do so, those same members have accused him of splitting hairs. We have required the president's counsel to prepare his defense without knowing what the formal charges would be, and we released articles of impeachment to the press before Mr. Ruff had even finished his presentation.

    At our hearing the other day, one of my Republican colleagues alluded to those he considers "real" Americans. To me, the real America is a land where every person, whether pauper or president, is accorded due process of law. Due process has nothing to do with legal hair-splitting; it has everything to do with requiring those who wield the awesome power of the state to meet their burden of proof.

    That is what distinguishes this country from a totalitarian one. That is the genius of the Constitution, crafted by men who knew and understood the nature of tyranny. As former U.S. Attorney Sullivan testified, those who complain most loudly about such technicalities are the first to resort to them when it is they who stand accused.

    For weeks members of the majority have cited the famous passage from "A Man for All Seasons" in which Thomas More defends the rule of law against those who would cut down every law in England to get after the devil. More says, and I quote, "And when the last law was down and the devil turned round on you, where would you hide, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast -- man's laws, not God's -- and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake."

    We would all do well to ponder those words, Mr. Chairman, for though we have invoked the rule of law, we have failed to embrace it. How can the American people accept our verdict unless they are satisfied we have conducted ourselves in as orderly, deliberate, and responsible a fashion as did the Watergate Committee in 1974, respectful of due process. Chairman Rodino did not proceed with the Nixon impeachment until it was clear that it had substantial bipartisan support. Chairman Hyde began these proceedings by observing that without such consensus, impeachment ought not go forward. Yet this has been the most partisan impeachment inquiry since the infamous trial of Andrew Johnson five generations ago. It is like a runaway train. Within the committee, some of us have attempted to apply the brakes, developing a respectful though ultimately unsuccessful dialogue with our colleagues across the aisle. Elsewhere, growing numbers of thoughtful Republican leaders, from Governor Racicot of Montana to Governor Rowland of Connecticut, have expressed dismay. Yet the train continues to gather speed.

    From my own perspective, this isn't even about President Clinton any more. That he deserves our condemnation is beyond all doubt. But as President Ford has written, the fate of one particular president is less important than preserving public confidence in our civic institutions themselves.

    Article II of the Constitution provides a mechanism for removing our president. It's called an election. And it happens every four years. Whatever the Founders meant by "high crimes and misdemeanors", the one thing that seems certain is that impeachment should be reserved for situations in which the incumbent poses so grave a danger to the republic that he must be replaced ahead of schedule.

    Last year the House debated proposed terms limits for members of Congress. One of the most respected leaders of the House led that fight against that legislation, choosing principle over party. In his speech he said, and I quote, "The right to vote is the heart and soul, it is the essence of democracy. Our task today is to defend the consent of the governed, not to assault it. Do not give up on democracy. Trust the people."

    The author of these eloquent words is my friend, the honorable Henry Hyde of Illinois. I remind him of these words today not to throw them back at him, but because it seems to me that the consent of the governed is once more under assault. And we sorely need such eloquence again.

    The president committed serious indiscretions. In the effort to conceal his misdeeds he compounded them, abusing the trust of those closest to him and deliberately, cynically lying to the American people. Knowing this, the people went to the polls on November 3rd and rendered their verdict. And it is illegitimate for a lame duck Congress to defy the will of the electorate on a matter of such profound significance.

    The voters did not condone the president's behavior. Far from it. But they knew the difference between misdeeds that merit reproach and abuses of office that require a constitutional coup d'etat. Some have said we are just a grand jury whose only role is to endorse the prosecutor's conclusion that there is probable cause to indict. And don't worry, they say, the Senate won't convict.

    This view is both dangerous and irresponsible. Impeachment is not some routine punishment for presidents who fall short of our expectations. It is the political equivalent of the death penalty with grave consequences for the nation that all of us, Republicans and Democrats, so dearly love.

    We should not use the ultimate sanction -- may I have an additional 30 seconds, Mr. Chairman?

    REP. SENSENBRENNER: Without objection.

    REP. DELAHUNT: We should not use the ultimate sanction when there is an alternative at hand. The joint resolution which my colleagues and I intend to offer expressing a disapproval of the president's misbehavior and censuring him for it.

    If the president really did commit perjury or other criminal acts, the law will deal with him in due course. Our job is to safeguard the Constitution, and the principle of popular sovereignty that is in the stirring words of Henry Hyde, "its heart and soul." There is still time to trust the people, Mr. Chairman. Let us do so before it is too late.

    I yield back and thank the chairman.

    REP. SENSENBRENNER: The gentleman's time has expired. The gentleman from New Jersey, Mr. Rothman.


    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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