Civics 101: Constitution gives House sole power to impeach official

J. H. Osborne • Oct 28, 2019 at 2:40 PM

This week we’re taking a look at a hot topic: impeachment.

The U.S. Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power to impeach an official, and it makes the Senate the sole court for impeachment trials. So we went looking for information on the origins and history of impeachment on the House of Representatives’ website. Here’s some of what we learned.

• The power of impeachment is limited to removal from office but also provides for a removed officer to be disqualified from holding future office. Fines and potential jail time for crimes committed while in office are left to civil courts.

• The House has initiated impeachment proceedings more than 60 times, but less than a third have led to full impeachments.

• Just eight, all federal judges, have been convicted and removed from office by the Senate.

• Outside of the 15 federal judges impeached by the House, two presidents (Andrew Johnson, a Northeast Tennessean, in 1868 and William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton in 1998), a cabinet secretary (William Belknap in 1876), and a U.S. senator (William Blount of North Carolina in 1797) have also been impeached.

• Blount’s impeachment trial, the first ever conducted, established the principle that members of Congress were not “civil officers” under the Constitution, and accordingly, they could only be removed from office by a two-thirds vote for expulsion by their respective chambers.

• Blount, who had been accused of instigating an insurrection of American Indians to further British interests in Florida, was not convicted, but the Senate did expel him.

• Other impeachments have featured judges taking the bench when drunk or profiting from their position.

• The trial of President Johnson, however, focused on whether the president could remove cabinet officers without obtaining Congress’ approval. Johnson’s acquittal firmly set the precedent, debated from the beginning of the nation, that the president may remove appointees even if they required Senate confirmation to hold office.

• Impeachment comes from British constitutional history. The process evolved from the 14th century as a way for parliament to hold the king’s ministers accountable for their public actions. Impeachment, as Alexander Hamilton of New York explained in Federalist 65, varies from civil or criminal courts in that it strictly involves the “misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

 • During the Federal Constitutional Convention, Rufus King of Massachusetts argued that having the legislative branch pass judgment on the executive would undermine the separation of powers; better to let elections punish a president. “The Executive was to hold his place for a limited term like the members of the Legislature,” King said, so “he would periodically be tried for his behaviour by his electors.” Massachusetts’ Elbridge Gerry, however, said impeachment was a way to keep the executive in check: “A good magistrate will not fear (impeachments). A bad one ought to be kept in fear of them.”

• The founders also addressed what crimes constituted grounds for impeachment. Treason and bribery were obvious choices, but George Mason of Virginia thought those crimes did not include a large number of punishable offenses against the state. James Madison of Virginia objected to using the term “maladministration” because it was too vague. Mason then substituted “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” in addition to treason and bribery. The term “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” was a technical term, again borrowed from British legal practice, that denoted crimes by public officials against the government. Mason’s revision was accepted without further debate.

Source: U.S. House of Representatives History, Art & Archives.