Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
How does impeachment work? Can congress just simply remove a president from office when they suspect them of wrongdoing? It seems many people in the general public think that it happens pretty quickly. The word impeachment has been on everyone’s minds, as President Donald J. Trump’s impeachment hearings have been in full swing. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what impeachment is and why it doesn’t necessarily mean removal from office.
What is Impeachment?
Impeachment in the United States describes the actual process the legislature undergoes to level charges against a government official for allegedly committing crimes. Officials other than the President can also be impeached. In fact, cabinet members, judges, governors, mayors, as well as members of congress can all be impeached. Here is a list of individuals impeached by the House of Representatives throughout US history. As it relates to the president at the federal level, the House of Representatives is the legislative body that initiates and carries out the process. When a President is impeached by the House they remain in office until a trial is held in the Senate. That trial in the Senate and his removal from office (if convicted), is separate from the act of impeachment itself.
The notion of Impeachment was established by the writers of the American Constitution in order to accuse a sitting president of a crime and provide an apparatus to hold a trial and to determine in a fair way if he is guilty of that crime. Treason and bribery are the two specific crimes that are considered impeachable offenses, that would result in a president being removed from office (If he is convicted). In addition to the crimes of treason and bribery, the US system of impeachment allows for a broader (Yet more vague) category to accuse the president of a crime. He can be charged with and found guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” However, these charges are not clearly defined in the constitution, which makes impeachment based on high crimes and misdemeanors more difficult.
The Steps Involved in the Impeachment Process
It seems that the framers of the constitution wanted to make it somewhat difficult to get rid of a government official, wanting to give them due process when accused. This makes for a complicated and lengthy process that the average American citizen may not fully understand. Below I have outlined the step by step process for impeachment.
- The very first step is initiated by the House of Representatives. A member of the House introduces the resolution.
- Next the Speaker of the House directs the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary (or a special committee) to hold a special hearing on the resolution. The hearing is to decide whether to have the full chamber put the measure to a vote and also set a date to hold the vote. President Trump’s impeachment hearing is underway as this article is being written. Here are five surprises from Trump’s impeachment inquiry.
- In order to approve the resolution they must have a simple majority in the House Vote.
- Upon the approval of the resolution by the Judiciary Committee, it moves to a full vote on the House floor.
- Upon voting, if a simple majority of the representatives present (and voting) approve an article of impeachment, then the president is officially impeached.
Note: This step is where the actual impeachment has occurred.
- After the president has been impeached the next phase is to hold a trial in the Senate to determine if the president has committed a crime based on the criteria outlined earlier in this article. The Senate leadership determines how the trial is to be conducted.
- Members of the House serve in the Senate trial in a role similar to that of prosecutors in a criminal trial. They are known as “managers.” The managers present evidence during the procedure, much like a prosecutor would.
- During the Senate trial the president has counsel to represent him.
- Neither side of Congress (The House or the Senate) has complete control over the process. The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presides over the actual Senate trial.
- Senators consider all of the evidence presented to them, and after closing arguments from both sides they take some time to deliberate.
- After deliberation, the Senators then reconvene and take a vote on whether the president is guilty or not. The Senate needs a two-thirds vote to convict the president. If he is found guilty, he is promptly removed from office and the vice president is sworn-in as president.
History of Impeachment in the US
Impeachment trials have been held three times in the country’s history — for President Andrew Johnson, for President Bill Clinton and now President Donald Trump. Both Johnson and Clinton’s trials ended in acquittals. In other words, they were impeached by the House, but not convicted and removed from office by the Senate. Johnson was one vote away from being convicted of violating the tenure of office act when he fired the secretary of war in 1868. In 1999, Bill Clinton was 22 votes short of being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. President Richard Nixon was actually never impeached. He resigned from the presidency on August 9, 1974, before the House could vote on the articles of impeachment.
Even though we have outlined the impeachment process in a somewhat simplified way it is a relatively complicated process. So we have provided some lessons and resources below for the general public and for teachers and students to get a better handle on the process.
- A Lesson Plan for Teaching About the Impeachment Hearings- New York Times
- The Educator’s Playbook A lesson plan for an impeachment inquiry
- Impeachment Lesson Plans and Resources
- The Rule of Law: Impeachment- High School Lesson Plan
- Impeachment Lesson Plan
Other Resources and References
- How Schools Are Using The Trump Impeachment Inquiry As A Teachable Moment- NPR
- How the Impeachment Process Works- New York Times
- What is impeachment and how does it work? 10 facts to know. Must the Senate hold a trial? How does Trump differ from Clinton? Can the president pardon himself? And much more
- How does impeachment work? Here is the step-by-step process
- Impeachment in the United States
- Impeachment process against Richard Nixon