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A House Republican already wants to impeach Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton, probably not going to get impeached. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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As frustrated as Republicans may be with the FBI's findings on Hillary Clinton's use of a private email while she was secretary of state, there's not much they can actually do about it. The FBI and Department of Justice already made their decision not to charge her with a crime, and congressional Republicans can't do much more than review that work and ask the executive branch to launch new investigations.

So it's no surprise that we're starting to hear some frustrated congressional Republicans reach for the sharpest arrow in their tool kit: impeachment. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) recently floated the idea to the Associated Press's Erica Werner: "There probably ought to be" impeachment hearings.

As far as we can tell,  he's the first lawmaker to suggest as much, though some conservative thinkers have been arguing that Congress should impeach the former secretary of state for some time now.

But hang on a second. Can Congress even impeach Clinton?

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Let's assume for the moment that the lawmakers' desire to act would outlast Election Day, even if Clinton were to lose. (That's a pretty big assumption, but let's make it the hypothetical for now.) While Congress has the power to impeach executive officials -- most recently Clinton's own husband, the former president -- Clinton is a former administration official, not a current one.

Mike Pence and Tim Kaine reacted on political television shows that aired Sept. 4 to the FBI report on Hillary Clinton’s email investigation (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

In August, I spoke with Cornell Law professor and constitutional expert Josh Chafetz, who said there's a debate in legal circles about whether Congress can essentially retroactively impeach someone. But even though the legal math is fuzzy, Brooks probably won't be the last lawmaker to call for Congress to impeach Clinton. So let's operate under the assumption they can. Then what?

A lot of drama, that's what. The impeachment proceedings for President Bill Clinton lasted some four months and sucked up almost all of the oxygen in Washington. There's absolutely no indication that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has any appetite whatsoever to undertake that kind of work. The House of Representatives has 14 legislative days and counting before it breaks for the election, and right now Ryan is just hoping he can fund the government in that time.

But even if Congress could impeach Clinton, and even if Ryan decided Congress had the time do it, there's a very real risk of it backfiring on Republicans. They could look like they're overplaying their hand while forsaking other legislative duties, like funding Zika virus research and prevention.

Plus Republicans don't yet have answers about what law, if any, Clinton broke.

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Which brings us to our final question and, really, the heart of the matter: If impeachment proceedings are very unlikely to happen right now, why is a sitting member of Congress even bringing it up?

That's much easier to answer: The messaging is powerful. Just floating the idea of impeachment proceedings helps House Republicans raise questions about Clinton's honesty and trustworthiness, two perceptions she has struggled with throughout this campaign and that may be dragging down her likability numbers overall.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found a record number of Americans dislike Clinton. By some measures, she is nearly as unlikable as her Republican opponent, Donald Trump.

If Clinton wins in November, Republicans  could decide to pursue impeachment proceedings. (As the Clintons know well, Congress can definitely impeach a sitting president.) But unless Republicans find a smoking gun in Clinton's email investigation -- and they have yet to -- it's still not clear what legal basis they'd be able to stand on.