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    Crimes and Misdemeanors

    By Ken Rudin
    Special to
    Friday, September 4, 1998

    Question: Much has been said about impeachment guidelines where "high crimes and misdemeanors" is the standard. Yet there seems to be a different value assigned to "misdemeanors" than that which our legal system uses. Please explain what "misdemeanor" is judged to be by Congress. – Chic Abner, McClellanville, S.C.

    Answer: Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution provides for the removal of the president, or vice president or any civil officer, following impeachment (a majority vote in the House) and conviction (a two-thirds vote in the Senate) of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

    In 1968, anti-LBJ Democrats hoped for the second impeachment of a president named Johnson. (Collection of Ken Rudin)
    Treason and bribery are easily defined. But it has been more difficult to state exactly what "high crimes and misdemeanors" means. Alexander Hamilton said it was the "abuse of public trust," or offenses "as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself." John Labovitz, the author of "Presidential Impeachment," wrote that the current view is that a president is subject to impeachment "for conduct that is seriously incompatible with either the constitutional form and principles of government or the proper performance of the constitutional duties of the presidential office."

    But the real answer may have come in 1970 from then-House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, who was behind a move to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. (Douglas was also the focus of an unsuccessful impeachment attempt in 1953 after he granted a stay of execution to the Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.) Ford, in citing a myriad of Douglas's alleged sins, was frank in his approach: "What, then, is an impeachable offense? The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."

    Question: I've read reports that say the president could be censured instead of impeached. What does it mean to be censured and would Clinton be the first? – Brian Head, Fairfax, Va.

    Answer: Back in March, congressional Republicans were stymied in their desire to punish the president. Impeachment was not going to happen so long as Clinton's polling numbers were strong, but the GOP was not about to let him get off the hook over his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

    At the time, some in Congress saw censure as the best way out – members could vote their outrage by passing a non-binding statement of disapproval regarding Clinton's actions, without sending the country into the upheaval of a constitutional crisis. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott even conceded that it was one of the options Congress had.

    Since then, Hill Democrats have talked about censure with increasing frequency, although Lott and other Republicans seem cool to the idea. Once the president went before the American public and said he had lied, er, misled the nation, more and more people became outraged, and more and more Republicans were emboldened to demand resignation or impeachment. Censure was no longer a satisfactory option for some Republicans.

    Clinton would not be the first president to face a congressional censure. That distinction fell to Andrew Jackson. The seventh president had a stormy relationship with the Whig-controlled Senate, which was furious over Jackson's views regarding the Bank of the United States. When Jackson removed government funds from the Bank and fired some Cabinet members who disagreed with him, the Senate, led by Jackson foe Henry Clay, voted in 1834 to censure him. But Jackson's Democrats took control of Congress in the 1836 elections, and in 1837, shortly before Jackson left office, the Senate voted to expunge the censure.

    More recently, two defenders of President Richard M. Nixon, Republican Reps. Paul Findley of Illinois and Delbert Latta of Ohio, introduced a resolution on Aug. 2, 1974, calling for the president's censure. They hoped it would pass and allow Republicans to avoid a vote on impeachment. But everyone saw the motion for what it was, and it never came up for a vote. Besides, nothing at that point was going to save Nixon, who resigned one week later.

    Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin:

    Ken Rudin, a former editor at NPR and the Hotline, writes the "Political Graffiti" column for The Hill, a Capitol Hill weekly. He is also the creator of's ScuttleButton contest.

    © Copyright 1998 Ken Rudin

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