Nixon Case as Precedent
Could Bode Well, Ill for Clinton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 1998; Page A23
With the House scheduled to vote Oct. 9 on whether to start formal impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, the pattern it set in 1974 with the investigation of Richard M. Nixon offers both hope and despair for the man in the White House.
If the House does now what it did nearly 25 years ago, it will authorize an open-ended investigation of the president, without any restrictions or deadlines. The actual measure voted by the House would be called a "resolution of inquiry," and if the Watergate example holds, it would not be limited to the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, campaign financing abuses, technology transfers to China or any other particular allegations against the Clinton White House.
A Nixon-style resolution of inquiry would also permit the House to censure Clinton or take some other action short of voting on articles of impeachment that would send him to trial in the Senate.
The resolution directed at Nixon, adopted Feb. 6, 1974, by a vote of 410 to 4, didn't even mention Watergate. It simply said that the House Judiciary Committee "is authorized and directed to investigate fully and completely whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to exercise its constitutional power to impeach Richard M. Nixon, president of the United States of America."
Democrats fearful of "a fishing expedition" against Clinton can take no comfort in such a wide-open authorization, but they might find solace in the next part of the 1974 resolution.
It said that "the committee shall report to the House of Representatives such resolutions, articles of impeachment, or other recommendations as it deems proper."
Although House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has rejected a quick plea-bargain type of deal to head off impeachment proceedings, Clinton supporters might use such a provision to press for a censure, large fine or some other punishment short of impeachment at the end of the inquiry.
The special counsel for the Nixon inquiry, John M. Doar, confirmed at a Jan. 31, 1974, Judiciary Committee business meeting that the provision was intended to give the panel "broad leeway as to what it might recommend, based upon the facts as they were developed in the course of the inquiry."
When then-Rep. Charles Wiggins (R-Calif.), a Nixon defender, sought assurances that the committee would not go beyond its essential task of deciding whether the president should be impeached, Doar balked. Whatever the committee recommended, he told Wiggins, "would depend upon how the inquiry developed and what facts and circumstances were brought forward."
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee now, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), told reporters last week that he had little interest in "casting a very wide net" to expand the panel's impeachment deliberations beyond the Lewinsky case.
Neither, as it turned out, did the Nixon-era panel expand its investigation. Despite the no-holds-barred wording of the resolution, it did little original investigating and, under Doar's tutelage, confined itself largely to information that had already been uncovered by Watergate prosecutors and the Senate Watergate committee.
In the controversy over Clinton, outnumbered House Democrats are making many of the same complaints that then-outnumbered Republicans raised on Nixon's behalf. The Democrats want a deadline for the inquiry; they opposed it in 1974. They want a right to issue their own subpoenas; they insisted on a veto when the Republican minority asked for that right in 1974.
If a formal inquiry is conducted this fall, the House could still postpone a decision on whether to vote on articles of impeachment until the new Congress convenes in January. As a House Judiciary Committee manual on impeachment puts it, "the House sometimes continues an investigation begun in a preceding Congress with view to an impeachment, making use of the former report and testimony already taken."
Any trial in the Senate could also be put off. For instance, in the first impeachment trial resulting in conviction -- that of John Pickering, a senile Federalist judge accused by Jeffersonians of unlawful rulings and appearing on the bench in "a state of total intoxication" two days in a row -- the impeachment was presented in the Senate on the final day of the Seventh Congress and the trial went on from that point in the Eighth Congress. The judge did not appear to defend himself, but his son made a presentation "alleging the insanity of his father."
A resolution of inquiry into Clinton's conduct, now being drafted by Hyde's committee, is far from the only way to initiate impeachment proceedings.
Under House rules and precedents, such proceedings can be triggered by charges made on the floor by a House member, a resolution dropped in the hopper by a lawmaker, a message from the president, facts developed by a House investigating committee, or allegations transmitted by a state legislature. Even "common fame" -- for example, disclosures in news articles -- can touch off an impeachment investigation.
The Constitution gives the House the "sole power of Impeachment" and the Senate "the sole power to try all Impeachments." But while there have been almost 70 inquiries into impeachment, they rarely result in what amounts to indictment by the full House, much less trial in the Senate.
Impeachment "is the heaviest artillery in the congressional arsenal, but because it is so heavy it is unfit for ordinary use," historian James Bryce once wrote. The House has impeached only 16 individuals: a president, a senator, a Cabinet member and 13 judges. The Senate convicted seven of the 16.
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