Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in Washington on Thursday. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Opinion writer

CNN reports on the House Judiciary Committee’s vote on impeachment rules, “Thursday’s vote, which does not need to be approved by the full House, gives Nadler the ability to deem committee hearings as impeachment hearings. It allows staff to question witnesses at those hearings for an hour after members conclude, gives the President’s lawyers the ability to respond in writing to public testimony and allows the committee to collect information in a closed setting.”

It is important to understand that is not a substantive resolution defining the scope of impeachment proceedings. The Post reports, “The closely held, informal discussions between some committee lawmakers and aides close to the investigations say the charges include a range of allegations — some that echo charges against former president Richard M. Nixon: obstruction of justice, abuse of power and defiance of subpoenas, as well as violation of campaign finance law and allegations of self-enrichment.” Nor does the resolution locks the committee into a formal vote on impeachment.

What, then, did Democrats do? They essentially set up a list of rules about how they are going to investigate items that may or may not be the basis of an impeachment vote. The set of rules tells us how the committee will operate and makes clear to courts that subpoenas from Congress in conjunction with its hearings are essential to a core duty of the House, the power to impeach.

Most comforting to many lawyers, the system allows staff to ask a sustained, coherent line of questions after members — too often prone to speeches — are finished. "Seriously, I would say, it’s reassuring to see the committee reaching back to the procedure that worked so well to educate the American people during the Nixon era,” former prosecutor Joyce White Vance tells me. “The Democrats’ decision to use professional committee staff to conduct questioning of witnesses, rather than bouncing among the members, will allow the facts to develop and let us all make up our minds for ourselves about what they mean. The Democrats have said loudly that the facts still matter.”

After a period of quiet, the resolution signals impeachment is very much on the table. Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe explains, “Today’s resolution marks an important milestone in the all-but-inexorable march toward President Trump’s eventual impeachment for ‘high Crimes’ against the United States — abuses of power that involve not only obstruction of justice and defiance of the rule of law but compromising entanglements with hostile foreign powers and, to put it simply, greedy and corrupt rip-offs of hard-working American taxpayers.” He adds, “Two particularly significant procedural features of the resolution are its provisions for direct participation by the president’s lawyers and by expert legal staff for the committee.”

Asked about the vote at her news conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats are still compelled to follow the facts wherever they lead. She said that, contrary to media chatter, there was no confusion among Democrats as to what they were doing. Pestered again to explain whether this was an “inquiry” or an “investigation,” Pelosi snapped, telling the press that instead of being hung up on a single word, they should be asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) why he’s doing nothing on gun safety.

The move is critical in two respects. First, it tells members anxious to see the process go forward that they are casting a wide net but will proceed methodically. “It’s good to see the committee treating this with the seriousness it deserves,” says former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller. “From making it clear that they will gather evidence in secret and give the president an opportunity to respond both publicly and privately, they are making clear this will be a fair, deliberative process, and not the sort of kangaroo court that characterized Republican oversight.” Second, while the obstruction outlined in the Mueller report is serious, it is also confusing and a source of partisan rancor. By including items like self-enrichment and acting as a co-conspirator in a scheme to pay off Stormy Daniels, the committee demonstrates it will not be putting all its eggs in one basket. Indeed, the more simple charges (e.g., receiving foreign emoluments) may be more easily presented and understood.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: What explains the Democrats’ impeachment muddle?

Jennifer Rubin: The House impeachment investigation should focus on Trump’s corruption

Donna F. Edwards: Time is running out. Impeach Trump.

Danielle Allen: Don’t forget there’s an impeachment inquiry underway

Max Boot: Here are seven reasons Trump should be impeached