Avoiding Bad Precedents

I just finished a course on the history of Rome.  The most fascinating era was the Roman revolution, where over about 100 years Rome slid from a Republic to an autocracy.  The final phases of the era, with the Caesars, gets a lot of play in movies and such, but it is actually the early period I found the most interesting.  In effect, Caesar or someone like him was effectively inevitable by that point in time.  The chance to avoid such an outcome actually came a hundred years earlier.

I won't get into the whole history, but suffice it to say that there was a major difference in the Republic between the theoretical power of certain offices and the actual power.  In effect, certain offices could theoretically take some pretty radical actions, but they were circumscribed by tradition and precedent.  However, when these precedents were broken (interestingly by a man who felt he was doing it for a good cause) restraints were removed and politics tended to devolve.

A while back, I wrote a post saying that I would love to see impeachment hearings in the Senate, because it would prevent the Senate from getting anything else done and it would be enormously entertaining. 

I take it back.  Having thought some more about it, I now think that it would be a really bad idea.   Impeachment has always been a power that could be used any time, but was not because the Congress generally recognized that restraint was in order.  The impeachment of Clinton broke with this tradition.  Yes, I know, he lied under oath.  Fine, yank his law license after he leaves office.  Yes, it probably was technically an impeachable offense.  But it falls way, way short of the line that historic precedent has set for when impeachment is appropriate.  And by greatly lowering this line, the Republican Congress took the huge risk of opening the floodgates to impeachment hearings virtually every time the President and Congressional majorities were from opposite parties.

I really would like to see the Democrats exercise restraint here.  I know many libertarians disagree with me, and would love nothing more than to see more frequent impeachments and recalls;  unfortunately, I just don't think that solves the libertarian problem of reducing the power and scope of government.

I don't want to misinterpret Kevin Drum, but he seems to be making a similar plea.  To M.J. Rosenburg, who argues:

The Constitutional remedy of impeachment is no longer
what it once was. For better or worse, the Republicans changed it, for
all time, when they impeached Clinton over, essentially, nothing.

And Clinton changed it as well. Impeachment not only did not end his
Presidency; it did not hurt his standing with the public. His numbers
stayed high, even improved some, and he left office on schedule, a very
popular President.

In other words, impeachment is no longer the political nuclear bomb
it once was, especially if one knows in advance that conviction and
removal from office is unlikely to occur.

Accordingly, impeachment proceedings are essentially the best means
of getting information to the public which is otherwise unavailable.

To this Drum says:

Impeachment should become a routine tool for getting public attention
whenever we disagree with a president of the opposite party? This might
be the worst argument in favor of impeachment of all time.

I agree.  I think Rosenburg is right that the Clinton impeachment changed the precedents around impeachment, but I would like to see the cork put back in the bottle now, before it is too late.


  1. Technomad:

    The same objections could be brought against Andrew Johnson's impeachment. The trouble with Clinton was that even though a lot of people recognized him as, essentially, a sociopathic slime, he'd learned a lot from Nixon and made it extremely hard to nail him for the real reasons, so they grabbed (unwisely, in my view) onto the whole Monica Lewinsky thing. Had they held off until the Chinese donations became known, they could have had a better chance of removing him.

  2. Michael Miller:

    The statute of limitations had run out but the investigations turned up credible evidence that Clinton had raped at least one woman...giving credence to the above comment but the underlying reason Clinton was impeached was for the 'shady' transfer of state of the art ballistic missle guidence technology to the Chinese. That was his real crime against the Republic and I believe that the matter should not have been dropped and that Clinton should have been prosecuted on that after he left office.

    But as a general principle I agree that impeachment should only be used when a very serious crime has been commited. The Republicans erred by failing to charge Clinton with his true crime.


  3. MP:

    I agree that the impeachment of Clinton was probably a mistake, but would say that the Nixon attempted impeachment was what broke tradition (AJ's long forgotten to most by then). Obstruction of justice was the offense in both cases, Clinton's perjury essentially being obstruction in a sexual harassment case. But point taken. It should not be a political tool.

  4. Ken King | King Marketing:

    The roman analogy cuts both ways - it is also a dangerous precedent to let the executive branch unilaterally change the interpretation of the constitution, give itself a wide range of new powers and routinely assert that these powers are not subject to legislative or judicial review.

    Impeachment is part of the system of checks and balances put in place to prevent this kind of abuse of power and it shouldn't be set aside simply because some legislators over-reached a decade ago.

    I'm not necessarily advocating impeachment hearings, but effective prosecution of legitimate offences with real consequences would put the cork back in the bottle - not just with regard to impeachment, but also in restricting the power of the executive branch.