Why More Members of Congress Might (Eventually) Support Impeachment
Thanks to several features of the latest allegations of wrongdoing in the Trump White House, debate over presidential impeachment has shifted to a new and more serious stage. Nonetheless, the question remains whether there will ever be enough members of Congress—a majority of the House (218) and two-thirds of the Senate (67)—to cast ballots in favor of removing the president from office.
Two variables appear to be driving legislator preferences on the issue. First, representatives from more liberal districts are more likely to support impeaching Trump. Second, lawmakers from the president’s own party have not crossed party lines to embrace impeachment (with maybe one exception). Taken together, this suggests that the Democratic House could approve one or more articles of impeachment against the president on mostly party-line vote(s), but the GOP-controlled Senate would not vote to convict.
Yet district partisanship and party loyalty are not the only things that determine whether members of Congress decide to remove a president. At least three additional, “inside the Beltway” dynamics contributed to legislator decision-making during the impeachment efforts against Richard Nixon in 1973-74 and Bill Clinton in 1998-99—and they are likely to matter this time too.
1. The actions of congressional party leaders. Because impeachment is a seldom-used, high-stakes process, it creates greater political uncertainty for legislators. That uncertainty gives congressional leaders considerable power to shape the impeachment process and move members of their party into the pro- (or anti-)impeachment camp.
For instance, John Farrell writes that during the Watergate scandal, then-majority leader Tip O’Neill (D-MA) lobbied behind the scenes to persuade reluctant House Democrats, including southerners from pro-Nixon districts, to support President Nixon’s impeachment. O’Neill even used “legislating in the dark” tactics: he promoted a dubious survey showing that Democrats would vote against anti-impeachment congressional candidates, and he warned colleagues that he kept a private (and non-existent) whip list of lawmakers who favored impeaching Nixon.
Twenty-five years later, leaders from both parties helped galvanize their troops over the Clinton impeachment. As documented by Peter Baker in his book The Breach, House whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) sustained momentum against the president with a savvy communications campaign, while Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) kept track of potential anti-Clinton votes and enlisted a moderate, Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia, to successfully win over doubtful Democrats.
Leaders in the majority can also influence outcomes by controlling the process by which impeachment is considered. According to Farrell, in 1973 Speaker Carl Albert (D-OK) made a fateful choice to let the House Judiciary Committee pursue impeachment, rather than forming a new, select committee that could have been dominated by Nixon supporters. O’Neill also pushed the slow-moving chair of Judiciary, Peter Rodino (D-NJ), to move at a faster clip in order to sustain momentum for impeachment.
It is noteworthy that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has exercised this same authority, calling for an “official impeachment inquiry” without a formal vote in the House chamber and deciding that the Intelligence Committee, rather than the Judiciary Committee, would take the lead on impeachment investigations. These decisions will affect the direction, if not the ultimate outcome, of the impeachment process.
The efforts to impeach Nixon and Clinton suggest that
“inside the Beltway” factors can convince reluctant lawmakers
to support presidential impeachment.
2. The nature and evidence of presidential malfeasance. As Julia Azari and many others have rightly noted, impeachment is fundamentally a political process, not a legal one. But that doesn’t mean the substance of the accusations lodged against a president are unimportant to lawmakers.
Consider the attempt to impeach Nixon. Most congressional Republicans had been steadfastly against removing the president until it was revealed that Nixon had ordered the CIA to block an FBI investigation of Watergate. The unambiguous evidence of obstruction of justice led all of Nixon’s GOP supporters on the House Judiciary Committee to come out against him, and as House Minority Leader John Rhodes (R-AZ) later recounted, it quickly convinced Rhodes that impeachment was necessary.
In their fascinating study of the Clinton impeachment, Nicol Rae and Colton Campbell noted that Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee had strong electoral reasons to support impeachment. In addition, however, committee Republicans expressed strong and seemingly genuine convictions that, based on the available evidence, Clinton had committed impeachable offenses and should be punished.
Legislators' independent evaluations of presidential behavior explain why seven Democrats from conservative-leaning districts declared their support for investigating President Trump. Despite the obvious political risks of taking such a stand, the freshmen—all of whom with national security backgrounds—were distressed by the possibility that Trump used money to extort a foreign country into digging up dirt on a political opponent.
3. Interactions between the White House and Congress. Presidents who are threatened with impeachment are not passive actors. They gauge their support in Congress and, though usually hesitant to look like meddlers in the process, may at least ask their allies to lobby swing legislators. Representatives in turn scrutinize not just the president’s popularity but his political and legal moves, searching for signs of whether or not to stick with the Chief Executive.
Both Nixon and Clinton tried to improve their standing on the Hill during impeachment, albeit with limited success—and sometimes their actions were counterproductive. Nixon toured the country with GOP leaders in Congress, for instance, while the Clinton White House identified potential swing votes in the House Republican Conference. But in late 1998, just as momentum for impeachment had begun to stall, Clinton unintentionally reinvigorated the campaign to remove him by giving vague and evasive answers to questions submitted by Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL).
It’s too soon to tell whether Trump will successfully maintain his popularity among GOP lawmakers. But Trump’s errant tweets and brash comments about impeachment may alienate Republican moderates, and his refusal to create a Clinton-like “war room” to combat impeachment could put him at a major disadvantage in shoring up support from fellow partisans in Congress.
These are hardly the only factors that shape lawmakers’ positions on impeachment. More legislators could endorse impeachment if, for example, public support for the president declines, a larger percentage of voters say they want Trump removed, other improper or illegal activity comes to light, or there are unexpected defections by influential Republicans (including, as Matt Glassman has pointed out, incumbents not running for reelection). But for a matter as weighty and uncertain as presidential impeachment, members of Congress are likely to look for guidance in many places, not just voters or their party.