On the Floor, History in the Making, and Remaking
By Robert G. Kaiser
Fifteen minutes before the House began yesterday's historic impeachment debate, members filled nearly every seat in the old chamber. A buzz of anticipation rose up from the floor. Then a photographer asked for everyone's attention, and took the official photograph of the 105th Congress. More than 200 members departed, and the debate began.
Many who spoke on whether to open a formal impeachment inquiry into the affairs of President Clinton declared yesterday's proceedings "historic." But using that adjective didn't compensate for the poor attendance even in the public galleries and generally routine debate. The vote, never in doubt, came out pretty much as predicted.
And yet it was historic: just the third time in the country's history that the House has launched a formal impeachment inquiry against a sitting president. Occasional flashes of emotion, particularly from Democrats, suggested the enormousness of the stakes now in play. "The American people are being railroaded," said the House minority whip, Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.). "Today's proceedings are a hit and run."
Republicans cast themselves as seekers of "the truth" and defenders of the principle that "no man is above the law," repeating both phrases again and again. They said they took no pleasure from the need to consider impeaching Clinton, though in other contexts many of them readily admit their contempt for him. "This Congress must decide whether we as a nation will turn a blind eye to allegations respecting both the subversion of the courts and the search for truth," said Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.).
Democrats fear the effective end of the Clinton presidency and a Congress "mired in hearings, tangled in testimony and grinding its gears in partisan stalemate," as Bonior put it. Many Democrats have decided that even if Clinton is guilty of every transgression independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has accused him of, impeachment would not be warranted. They treat the impeachment issue as a diversion from more important issues.
Black and female Democrats made these points with particular ardor yesterday. At one point, a dozen Democratic women were lined up to seek Speaker Newt Gingrich's permission to submit remarks for the record in opposition to the Republican proposal for an impeachment inquiry. None of them had been allocated any of the Democrats' one hour for debate, but most of them tried to sneak in a line or two to show their anger with the GOP's motion. "I rise against this pre-Halloween witch hunt," snapped Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.).
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) won a standing ovation and cheers from his fellow Democrats after taunting the Republicans with the accusation that they didn't really want to impeach Clinton, just "to attempt to hound this president . . . out of office" and create a good issue for next month's elections. "It's the only thing they have to take to the American people," Rangel said. Then he turned to the Republican side of the House and ridiculed their legislative record. "On the question of Social Security, what have you done? . . . What have you done for education? What have you done for the health of the people in this nation?"
Republicans taunted back, and cheered their own with equal gusto. When the floor manager of the impeachment inquiry resolution, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), responded to Democratic complaints that the two-hour debate was too short, he noted that the comparable debate on launching an impeachment inquiry of Richard M. Nixon lasted only an hour. "But it would be too much for me to expect appreciation for doubling the time," he quipped, and his colleagues roared their approval.
The Democrats supported an impeachment inquiry in yesterday's debate, but one whose scope and duration would be strictly limited. Their alternative was defeated. Again, history was not on their side. The Republicans made the 1974 Watergate inquiry their ally.
Twenty-four years ago, when Democrats ruled the House as autocratically as Republicans do today, the majority beat back an attempt to limit the length of the Judiciary Committee's impeachment inquiry, just as yesterday's majority did. Republicans were quoting Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D-N.J.), then the Judiciary Committee chairman, throughout yesterday's debate on the inadvisability of being "locked in" to a date certain for ending the investigation. Setting a date the Democrats yesterday were proposing Dec. 31 "would be totally irresponsible and unwise," Rodino said in 1974. Of course, most Democrats refuse to accept that Clinton's transgressions remotely compare with Nixon's.
The Founding Fathers thought the House of Representatives was their most important creation. It came first in the Constitution, in Article I; the president and his limited powers are described in Article II. But from the beginning the House never got star billing. Only one newspaper assigned a reporter to cover the first House sessions. Senators were more glamorous from the outset, and the president has always been a star, even in times when Congress pushed him around. This election year, eight members of the House are running for the Senate. No senators are running for the House.
The books recording great moments in the history of Congress also favor the Senate, where oratory has been cultivated from the earliest days. House debates have rarely received much attention.
But when it comes to removing the president, the House is critical. The House's readiness to impeach Nixon impelled him to resign. And the House did impeach Andrew Johnson, the willful Tennessean who was Abraham Lincoln's second-term vice president and ascended to the presidency after Lincoln's assassination. The House vote ended Johnson's effectiveness as president even though he was acquitted in the Senate by a single vote.
Though rarely recalled, the first vote on impeaching Johnson failed in the House by a vote of 57 in favor, 108 against. But Johnson was impeached in a second vote two months later in February 1868 by 126 to 47.
In the interim Johnson chose to violate a law that Congress had recently passed limiting a president's right to fire members of his Cabinet who had been confirmed by the Senate. Johnson dismissed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and named a replacement. House members who previously felt it was wrong to impeach Johnson without evidence he had actually violated a law as president became willing in a fiercely partisan political atmosphere to vote for impeachment.
A new version of that debate lies ahead for this House. The Republican argument, voiced repeatedly yesterday, that a president who lies in sworn testimony and encourages other witnesses in a civil case to hide or distort the truth could be impeached, constitutes a new approach in the history of impeachment proceedings. Previously the House has looked for some form of official malfeasance. One judge has been impeached and convicted after refusing to resign while serving a two-year sentence for income tax evasion. But the number of precedents is small, and legal scholars agree that impeachment is a political process in which legal precedents are not controlling.
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the House majority whip, asked in yesterday's debate, "How will history judge our actions that we take today?" He said the choice was simple: to establish whether the president broke the law, "and if he did, does that law-breaking constitute an impeachable offense?"
Other members, asked how they would explain to a 21st century American historian how Clinton came to be the third American president subjected to an impeachment inquiry, gave answers that revealed how differently rival politicians see this case. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Clinton had come to this fate because of "the misuse of power by a special prosecutor" and the eagerness of "an extremely partisan and shortsighted Republican majority in the House . . . to find any way to bash the administration" and express its "hatred of the president."
Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, blamed this turn of events on one individual's "callous disregard for the importance of the office that he holds. ... It's just a black smear on American history." Livingston said that decades are often remembered for just one or two things. "I think the '90s are going to be remembered for O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton, and that's not a comforting thought."
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), who is retiring this year after 17 terms in the House, also blamed Clinton in large measure: "His personal behavior, his self-inflicted wounds, have had a huge impact on his legacy." But Hamilton also saw an underlying partisanship at work here, one not unlike the partisanship when Andrew Johnson was president. "We live in a time of great intensity of partisan feelings," Hamilton said.
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