Impeachment and Censure Lose Their Gravity in Congress

by Sophia Chen
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Congressional punishments, such as impeachment and censure, are losing their stigma as House Republicans employ them against prominent figures within the Biden administration. The specter of impeachment looms over Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and even President Joe Biden himself, as Republican members driven by hard-right demands threaten these severe actions. This focus on “high crimes and misdemeanors” fuels legislative action, committee investigations, fundraising endeavors, and adds complications to Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s plans and leadership team.

Previously seen as an option reserved for the gravest offenses, the power of impeachment, authorized by the Constitution, is rapidly transitioning from an extraordinary measure to a mundane occurrence. This shift is primarily propelled by Republicans and their grievances surrounding the two impeachments of former President Donald Trump by Democrats. In fact, Republicans are so opposed to Trump’s impeachments that they seek to expunge the charges altogether, a move unprecedented in congressional history aimed at clearing his name.

Julian Zelizer, a historian and political scientist from Princeton University, points out that “a generation of Republicans who are much more willing to test the boundaries of how much you can weaponize procedures” is emerging. Most recently, Attorney General Garland became the target of a potential impeachment investigation, spurred by Republicans scrutinizing the Department of Justice’s handling of Hunter Biden’s federal tax offenses. Additionally, hard-right Republicans forced a vote to investigate articles of impeachment against Biden, while also voting to censure Democratic Representative Adam Schiff for his conduct during the 2017 investigation into Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.

Republicans are now considering another censure action, this time targeting Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson for his role leading the House committee investigating the January 6th insurrection. In the past, censure, a punishment one step below expulsion, was reserved for grave misconduct. When former Democratic Representative Charles Rangel was censured in 2010 for ethics violations, a bipartisan vote accompanied the solemn moment when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi summoned him to the well of the House for public shaming.

However, recent censure proceedings have taken on a more carnival-like atmosphere. Last week, as Schiff faced censure, Democrats, including Pelosi, gathered shoulder-to-shoulder in the well of the House, heckling McCarthy with chants of “Shame!” and “Disgrace!” until he left the dais. The partisan nature of these events was evident when a Democrat shouted, “What goes around comes around,” prompting Republicans to exit the chamber in disbelief. Representative Anna Paulina Luna, a Republican from Florida, who bypassed leadership to force a vote on the censure resolution against Schiff, described the chaotic scene.

The fervor for punishment in the House shows no signs of subsiding, partly because lawmakers benefit from media attention and increased fundraising opportunities that now rival committee chairmanships as a source of power. Luna, a newcomer to Congress who won a Florida district previously held by Democrats, was interviewed on prime-time Fox News after successfully pushing for Schiff’s censure. Meanwhile, Schiff, who is running for a California Senate seat, capitalized on the moment, using it to launch a fundraising blitz.

Nevertheless, the Republicans’ growing appetite for employing punitive measures carries the risk of escalating into a serious test of Congress’s legitimate exercise of power. This concern is particularly relevant when it comes to Biden. Representative Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, forced a vote on an impeachment resolution against Biden, accusing him of “high crimes and misdemeanors” in his handling of the U.S.-Mexico border. While Republican leaders managed to delay Boebert’s resolution, some Republicans believe it is only a matter of time before Biden faces impeachment. The debate on the House floor resembled a dress rehearsal, with Democrats and Republicans arguing whether Biden’s border and immigration policies constituted “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Only three U.S. presidents—Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Trump—have been impeached, none of whom were convicted by the Senate. If Republicans decide to make Biden the fourth president to face impeachment, it would present an unprecedented test for the system of checks and balances established by the framers of the Constitution. While the term “high crimes and misdemeanors” deliberately lacks a specific definition, the Republican argument for impeaching Biden revolves around policy disagreements, primarily related to his handling of the southern border, which they claim violates his oath of office.

Political historian Julian Zelizer warns that proceeding with impeachment based on such grounds will have long-lasting consequences. He cautions that it weakens government functionality, undermines trust in democracy, and ultimately leaves the democratic system in a weaker state than before.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about impeachment

What is driving the increased use of impeachment and censure in Congress?

The increased use of impeachment and censure in Congress is primarily driven by House Republicans who are employing these measures against the Biden administration. Their grievances stem from the previous impeachments of former President Trump by Democrats, leading them to utilize these actions more frequently.

How does the use of impeachment and censure affect legislative action and committee investigations?

The use of impeachment and censure creates a backbeat of chatter about “high crimes and misdemeanors” that drives legislative action and spurs committee investigations. It brings attention to specific issues and individuals, shaping the agenda and influencing the course of investigations.

Are Republicans seeking to expunge previous impeachment charges against former President Trump?

Yes, Republicans are pressing for votes to expunge the charges altogether, aiming to clear the name of former President Trump. This attempt to expunge impeachments is unprecedented in congressional history and showcases their strong opposition to Trump’s impeachments.

How does the increasing use of censure differ from its traditional usage?

Traditionally, censure has been reserved for grave misconduct and was considered a rare punishment. However, the increasing use of censure has made it more commonplace, with each cycle of Congress witnessing breaking news involving censure actions.

What are the concerns associated with the growing use of impeachment and censure?

One concern is that the frequent use of these punitive measures weakens the functioning of government and undermines trust in democracy. There is a risk that these actions could escalate and test the legitimacy of Congress’s power, especially if they are based on policy disagreements rather than clear violations of the law.

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