The Founders were fearful that impeachment would become a partisan endeavor, and they were right to be nervous. It has. That’s why the Founders set the bar so high for a Senate conviction.

If you look back at the history of US presidential impeachments, you will find a great deal of partisanship in the support for impeachment and removal. That is except for Nixon, the impeachment that didn’t happen, due to bipartisan agreement. He realized a Senate conviction was likely and stepped down before the impeachment ever occurred.

You will also find that the majority of the bipartisanship and/or crossing of party lines was by Republicans rather than Democrats, and it was Republicans voting against impeachment and/or removal of a Democrat president. This will probably not be a surprise. Democrats have tended much more to vote as a bloc for impeachment and/or removal of a Republican president.

Take a look at the vote on the impeachment of Democrat Andrew Johnson. Republicans held an enormous majority in the House, and there were only four defections out of 126 GOP House members voting “yea” for impeachment. Of the 47 Democrats, only two went against their party to vote “yea” instead of “nay.” So the House vote was highly – although not totally – partisan. However, in the Senate – also heavily controlled by Republicans (45 to 9) – something entirely different happened. Of the total of 45 Republicans, ten voted for acquittal, which was just enough to acquit Johnson by a single vote.

Nixon, I’ve already discussed. But for Clinton, we had a mixed House vote on the different articles. On the first article (perjury to the grand jury), there were five crossovers from each party. On the second (perjury in the Jones case), there were also 5 Democratic crossovers but 28 on the GOP side, and so that measure failed. On the third (obstruction of justice), there were 5 Democratic crossovers and 12 GOP ones; the article passed. On the fourth (abuse of power), there was 1 Democratic crossover to 81 Republicans who crossed over, and the measure failed.

In Clinton’s Senate trial, every single Democrat voted for acquittal on both counts. Even if every Republican had voted to convict, there would not have been a 2/3 majority to remove Clinton. But 10 Republican senators voted against the first article and 5 voted against the second, a bipartisan vote on the GOP side only. This resulted in the first article not even getting a majority of votes much less 2/3, and the second only getting a tie vote.

Now we are at the recent impeachment and trial of Trump. In the House, no Republican voted for either of the two articles of impeachment passed by the Democrat majority, and only 2 Democrats crossed lines on the first article and three on the second. And I don’t even need to link to the Senate vote in the trial because it’s easy to remember that there was only one crossover for conviction and removal: Mitt Romney. Otherwise, it was an ultimately party-line vote, the most partisan vote in the history of US impeachment trials.

This indicates another interesting point. Impeachment may start to happen again and again, whenever the opposite party of the president has the House majority. But as far as conviction in the Senate trial goes, if Democrats ever control the Senate by 2/3 and there is a Republican president, he or she may stand a good chance of being removed on a party-line vote. But if the GOP ever gets control of 2/3 of the Senate and there is a Democratic president, removal would be less likely, at least if you look at the historical precedents.

But that sort of imbalance hasn’t occurred in the Senate in recent decades. During FDR’s tenure, the Democrats had vast Senate majorities, but of course, FDR was a Democrat as well. The same was true for Lyndon Johnson.

One can only conclude that the Founders knew what they were doing in setting so high a bar in the Senate for conviction. Of course, that doesn’t stop the sort of stunts that the Democrats pulled this time, impeaching in the House because they could do it and because they thought it would help them politically even though they would not and really could not secure removal.

[Neo is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at the new neo.]

 

 
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