As the presidential impeachment hearings unfold in the nation’s capital, the political science department and the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy brought the conversation to College Hill.
In a faculty forum Tuesday evening, the panelists discussed various aspects of the impeachment process ranging from its history, the Congressional rules and processes that govern it and the process’ political and policy implications.
Moderated by Susan Moffitt, director of the Taubman Center and associate professor of political science and international and public affairs, the forum’s speakers were professors Richard Arenberg, visiting professor in the practice of political science; James Morone, professor of political science and urban studies; Eric Patashnik, professor of political science and public policy; and Wendy Schiller, chair and professor of political science.
The panelists reflected on the significance of the current impeachment hearings for President Donald Trump. Morone discussed three similar situations of the past — the impeachments of presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton—that each created a “change moment in American history.”
Morone pointed to Johnson’s impeachment at the end of the Civil War to demonstrate that “impeachment really reflects the parties and what they believe.” While the Democrats sided with a president who held “deep racist urges” and called for a return to white supremacy, the Republicans who initiated impeachment advocated for equality and liberation of slaves.
As for Nixon’s impeachment, Morone said it was more of a matter of wrongful behavior and character than guilt in the Watergate scandal, adding that Nixon’s “holier than thou” public persona was shattered after the release of the White House tapes. The importance of moral personal behavior from presidents was emphasized again in Bill Clinton’s impeachment for perjury regarding his relationship to White House staffer Monica Lewinsky.
When asked by Moffit if the partisanship on display in current proceedings differed from the past, Morone responded that this is a highly partisan era “because there is just no overlap in the party.” Morone added that in the past “identity politics were diffused between the two parties,” but for the first time since the 1990s, there has been one party that has captured both African Americans and immigrants.
Arenberg, who spent 34 years in high-ranking staff positions on Capitol Hill, touched upon the rules and procedures that govern the actions of the House and Senate. Building off the topic of partisanship in impeachment, Arenberg contrasted today’s climate with the climate in 1998. Though Clinton’s impeachment was also highly partisan, the Senate was able to pass a bipartisan resolution—100 to 0—to govern impeachment proceedings in the Senate.
Arenberg also explained the current impeachment process in the House, which includes a public hearing, is followed by a report by the Intelligence Committee to make a recommendation of impeachment to the judiciary. The judiciary will then write articles of impeachment that go to the House floor for a vote, Arenberg said.
On the other hand, the Senate has 26 rules for impeachment “with lots of holes” that make “it very difficult to say for certain how the procedure will unfold,” Arenberg said. If the House presents articles of impeachment to the Senate, the Senate must hold hearings and meetings “until judgment is rendered.” The Chief Justice who rules on the matter is expected to follow the recommendation of the Parliamentarian. To exemplify this process, Arenberg ended with a story he heard from Bob Dove, Parliamentarian during Clinton’s impeachment, about Chief Justice William Rehnquist when he was the presiding officer. When Rehnquist had to make an important ruling during deliberations, he swiveled around in his chair to face Dove. In a “whisper that could be heard throughout the chamber,” he looked at Dove and asked, “what the hell do I do now?”
The panel discussion next turned to Patashnik, who spoke about the impeachment’s impact on policy decisions. Pastashnik said historically, impeachment and law making “were reinforcing each other.” But the reason it is not happening now — for example, through laws that protect whistleblowers—is because the force of “polarization is just too great.”
When imagining what a second Trump term would look like, Pastashnik said that people should instead ask if the GOP will remain the party of Trump.
“A second Trump term would be highly consequential,” he said. “It would entrench shifts in partisan coalitions, in America’s place in the world and in the constitutional foundation of the federal role in the economy.”
Schiller gave remarks on the impeachment hearings’ possible impact on the 2020 congressional and presidential elections. She told the audience not to “discount the power in increasing voter turnout,” citing that 2018 had that highest midterm turnout since 1974 and delivered political changes in the same states Trump won.
Schiller also emphasized that “everything is a matter of margin” and that Democrats need to focus on moving the needle on a small group of moderates because of how consequential their votes could be. Schiller said this small group is prone to “Trump fatigue.” Schiller compared it to 2016 voters’ reactions after former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey announced an email investigation into Hillary Clinton four days before the election. The announcement scared voters into thinking the Clinton presidency would be marred by investigations, possibly paralleling how voters might feel after Trump’s impeachment hearings.
Kevin Monclair ’23 came to the forum after recently writing a paper that detailed the history of impeachment. He asked the panelists what they believed was a “constitutionally accurate” way to go about impeachment.
Patashnik responded that while people today want and need “rules and regulations” in their society, the founders who wrote the Constitution simply wanted people to “use their judgment.” Monclair said Patashnik’s remarks stood out to him and that it opened his mind to “something I never thought about before.”
Responding to the future of policy making in an era of entrenchment politics, Morone pointed to the changing numbers of new voters who are increasingly millennials and democrats. “We might see this as the last gasp of an old white party hanging onto power.”
“It would really be interesting to look back 10 years from now — remember this moment — because we’ll know stuff that we won’t know now,” Morone said.