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Dec. 18: Henry Hyde Opening Statement

By the Associated Press
Friday, December 18, 1998

Text of remarks by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill, during the House debate on articles of impeachment against President Clinton Friday, as transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House:

Mr. Speaker, my colleagues of the people's House, I wish to talk to you about the rule of law. After months of argument, hours of debate, there is no need for further complexity. The question before this House is rather simple. It's not a question of sex. Sexual misconduct and adultery are private acts and are none of Congress' business.

It's not even a question of lying about sex. The matter before the House is a question of lying under oath. This is a public act, not a private act. This is called perjury. The matter before the House is a question of the willful, premeditated, deliberate corruption of the nation's system of justice. Perjury and obstruction of justice cannot be reconciled with the office of the president of the United States.

The personal fate of the president is not the issue. The political fate of his party is not the issue. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is not the issue. The issue is perjury -- lying under oath. The issue is obstruction of justice, which the president has sworn the most solemn oath to uphold.

That oath constituted a compact between the president and the American people. That compact has been broken. The people's trust has been betrayed. The nation's chief executive has shown himself unwilling or incapable of enforcing its laws for he has corrupted the rule of law -- the rule of law -- by his perjury and his obstruction of justice.

That and nothing other than that is the issue before this house.

We have heard ceaselessly that, even if the president is guilty of the charges in the Starr referral, they don't rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Well, just what is an impeachable offense?

One authority, Professor Stephen Presser of Northwestern University Law School said, and I quote, "Impeachable offenses are those which demonstrate a fundamental betrayal of public trust. They suggest the federal official has deliberately failed in his duty to uphold the Constitution and laws he was sworn to enforce." Close quote. ...

And so we must decide if a president, the chief law enforcement officer of the land, the person who appoints the attorney general, the person who nominates every federal judge, the person who nominates to the Supreme Court and the only person with a constitutional obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, can lie under oath repeatedly and maintain it is not a breach of trust sufficient for impeachment.

The president is the trustee of the nation's conscience and so are we here today. There have been many explosions in our committee hearings on the respective role of the House and Senate. Under the Constitution, the House accuses and the Senate adjudicates.

True, the formula language of our articles recites the ultimate goal of removal from office, but this language doesn't trump the Constitution, which defines the separate functions, the different functions, of the House and the Senate.

Our Founding Fathers didn't want the body that accuses to be the same one that renders final judgment, and they set up an additional safeguard of a two-thirds vote for removal. So despite protests, our job is to decide if there is enough evidence to submit to the Senate for a trial.

That's what the Constitution says, no matter what the president's defenders say. When Ben Franklin, on September 18, 1787, told a Mrs. Powell, that the founders and framers had given us a republic if you can keep it, perhaps he anticipated a future time when bedrock principles of our democracy would be mortally threatened as the rule of law stands in the line of fire today.

Nothing I can think of more clearly illustrates that America is a continuing experiment, never finished; that our democracy is always a work in progress. Then this debate today -- for we sit here with the power to shake and reconfigure the charter of our freedom, just as the founders and framers did. We can strengthen our Constitution by giving it content and meaning, or we can weaken and wound it by tolerating and thus encouraging lies under oath and evasions and breaches of trust on the part of our chief executive.

The president's defenders in this House have rarely denied the facts. They have not seriously challenged the contention of the independent counsel that the president did not tell the truth in two sworn testimonies. They have not seriously attempted to discredit the facts brought before the committee by the independent counsel. They've admitted, in effect, he did it. But then they've argued that this does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

This is the "so-what" defense, whereby a chief executive, the successor to George Washington, can cheapen the oath, and it really doesn't matter.

They suggest that to impeach the president is to reverse the result of national election, as though Senator Dole would become president.

They propose novel remedies like a congressional censure that may appease some constituents and certainly mollify the press but, in my judgment, betray a lack of seriousness about the Constitution, the separation of powers and the carefully balanced relationship of checks and balances between Congress and the president that was wisely crafted by the framers.

A resolution of censure, to mean anything, must punish if only to tarnish his reputation. But we have no authority under the Constitution to punish the president. It's called separation of powers.

As you know, we've been attacked for nor producing fact witnesses. But this is the first impeachment inquiry in history with the Office of Independent Counsel in place, and their referral to us consisted of 60,000 pages of sworn testimony, grand jury transcripts, depositions, statements, affidavits, video and audio tapes.

We had the facts and we had them under oath.

We had Ms. Lewinsky's heavily corroborated testimony under a grant of immunity that would be revoked if she lied.

We accepted that and so did they. Else why didn't they call any others whose credibility they questioned as their own witnesses? Now there was so little dispute on the facts, they called no fact witnesses and have even based a resolution of censure on the same facts.

Let's be clear. The vote that all of us are asked to cast is, in the final analysis, a vote on the rule of law.

Now the rule of law is one of the great achievements of our civilization, for the alternative is the rule of raw power. We here today are the heirs of 3,000 years of history in which humanity slowly, painfully, at great cost evolved a form of politics in which law, not brute force, is the arbiter of our public destinies.

We are the heirs of the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law, a moral code for a free people, who, having been liberated from bondage, sought in law a means to avoid falling back into the habits of slaves.

We are the heirs of Roman Law, the first legal system by which peoples of different cultures, languages, races and religions came to live together in a form of political community.

We are the heirs of the Magna Carta, by which the free men of England began to break the arbitrary and unchecked power of royal absolutism. We're the heirs of a long tradition of parliamentary development in which the rule of law gradually came to replace royal prerogative as a means for governing a society of free men and women.

We're the heirs of 1776 and of an epic moment in human affairs, when the founders of this Republic pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honors. Think of that -- sacred honor -- to the defense of the rule of law.

We are the heirs of a hard-fought war between the states, which vindicated the rule of law over the appetites of some for owning others. We are the heirs of the century's great struggles against totalitarianism, in which the rule of law was defended at immense cost against the worst tyrannies in human history.

The phrase "rule of law" is no pious aspiration from a civics textbook. The rule of law is what stands between all of us and the arbitrary exercise of power by the state. The rule of law is the safeguard of our liberties. The rule of law is what allows us to live our freedom in ways that honor the freedom of others, while strengthening the common good.

The rule of law is like a three-legged stool. One leg is an honest judge, the second leg is an ethical bar, and the third is an enforceable oath. All three are indispensable to avoid political collapse.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln celebrated the rule of law before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, and linked it to the perpetuation of American liberties and American political institutions. Listen to Lincoln, from 1838: "Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well-wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of '76 did to support the Declaration of Independence, so the support of the Constitution and laws, let every American pledge his life, his property and his sacred honor. Let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father and to tear the character of his own and his children's liberty.

"Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap. Let it be taught in the schools, seminaries, colleges. Let it be written in primers, spelling books, almanacs. Let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls and enforced in the halls of -- in the courts of justice."

So said Lincoln.

My colleagues, we have been sent here to strengthen and defend the rule of law -- not to weaken, not to attenuate it, not to disfigure it. This is not a question of perfection; it's a question of foundations.

This isn't a matter of setting the bar too high; it's a matter of securing the basic structure of our freedom -- which is the rule of law.

No many or woman, no matter how highly placed, no matter how effective a communicator, no matter how gifted a manipulator of opinion or winner of votes, can be above the law in a democracy. That is not a counsel of perfection. That is a rock-bottom, irreducible principle of our public life.

There's no avoiding the issue before us, much as I wish we could. We are, in one way or another, establishing the parameters of permissible presidential conduct.

In creating a presidential system, the framers invested that office with extraordinary powers. If those powers are not exercised within the boundaries of the rule of law, if the president breaks the law by perjury and obstructs justice by willfully corrupting the legal system, that president must be removed from office.

We cannot have one law for the ruler and another law for the ruled. This was once broadly understood in our land. If that understanding is lost or if it becomes seriously eroded, the American democratic experiment and the freedom it guarantees is in jeopardy. That and not the fate of one man, or one political party, or one electoral cycle is what we're being asked to vote on today.

In casting our votes we should look not simply to ourselves, but to the past and to the future. Let's look back to Bunker Hill, Concord, Lexington. Let's look across the river to Arlington Cemetery where American heroes who gave their lives for the sake of the rule of law lie buried. And let us not betray their memory.

Let's look to the future, to the children of today who are the presidents and members of Congress of the next century. And let's not crush their hope that they too will inherent a law-governed society.

Let's declare unmistakably the perjury and obstruction of justice disqualify a man from retaining the presidency of the United States.

There is a mountain of details which are assembled in a coherent mosaic in the committee report. It reads like a novel, only it's nonfiction. It really happened. And the corroboration is compelling. Read the report and be convinced.

What we're telling you today are not the ravings of some vindictive political crusade but a reaffirmation of a set of values that are tarnished and dim these days, but it is given to us to restore them so our founding fathers would be proud.

Listen, it's your country. The president is our flag bearer.

He stands out in front our people when the flag is flowing. Catch the falling flag as we keep our appointment with history.


© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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