What is impeachment? Many of us think impeachment means an elected official’s removal from office, when in fact, it is only an indictment and is not necessarily followed by removal. For that, the official must be convicted in a separate trial.
Impeachment is rare, but it’s a term we are coming across often in the current political climate, so here’s what you should know.
What are Impeachable Offences?
President Ford may have put it best when he said that an impeachable offense is whatever Congress says it is at a particular time. But what does the law have to say?
The Constitution states that a president, vice-president, and other elected officials can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The acts of treason and bribery are easy to define and understand, but interpreting the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” is more difficult. In the past, the phrase has been taken to mean:
- A crime against the state, such as perjury
- A political crime, meaning the abuse of political power
- The neglect of duties for nefarious or corrupt purposes
How Does the Impeachment Process Work?
Let’s take federal impeachment as an example. In the U.S., the House of Representatives is responsible for impeaching a president when they commit an offense such as perjury or obstruction of justice. A House member initiates the impeachment proceedings by submitting a list of charges to the appropriate House committee.
If the committee determines that grounds for impeachment exist, they submit an impeachment resolution (also known as articles of impeachment) to the entire House. A simple majority vote is needed to pass the resolution.
If the elected official is impeached, they must stand trial before the Senate, which acts as the jury. The Senate can either convict or acquit the accused, with a two-thirds majority needed for conviction and removal from office.
Note that Congress cannot impose criminal penalties such as prison, meaning that a Senate trial does no more than remove the official from office.
How Many Presidents Have Been Impeached?
While no president has actually been removed from office, there have been a few close calls. John Tyler’s political opponents were unable to get the necessary votes in the House to impeach him. And, following the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon resigned to avoid his almost certain impeachment and conviction by the Senate.
Two presidents have actually been impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Both were acquitted in their Senate trials, although it’s worth noting that Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote.