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The Dangerous Overuse of Impeachment Power

Updated: Mar 15

Currently, Congress uses impeachment threats like a toy, but it is a powerful tool to Congress that is losing its meaning over time. The opinions in this article are those of the individual author.

The Constitution structured government power into three distinct branches: executive (the Presidency), legislative (Congress) and judicial (Supreme Court). To ensure one branch does not gain too much power, the Founding Fathers instituted a system of checks and balances as a countermeasure. 

The Supreme Court balances Congress by using its authority to rule certain decisions by Congress as unconstitutional. However, the legislative branch can impeach Supreme Court judges. The judicial branch helps balance the presidency by declaring its acts unconstitutional. The executive balances Congress to veto legislation from that branch. However, Congress holds the power to impeach the President, the Vice-President or any federal official for “Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Congress's ability to impeach is of great importance, as it ensures the executive branch is held accountable for any actions that violate the Constitution. However, as Pr. Sarah Binder stated impeachment power is slowly losing its constraining reputation over the last few years. The numerous recent impeachment threats are undermining Congress’ legitimacy. Moreover, it harms the already low Americans’ trust in Congress. Using it exceptionally should be the norm. 

However, the current cleavage between both political parties plays a significant part in the overuse of impeachment threats, which, since last year, have been justified as a payback rather than its created purpose to punish high crimes and misdemeanors.

Impeaching a politician should be the last resort and never a revenge tool. This issue posed a problem recently with Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas' impeachment “for his handling of issues involving fentanyl and border security.” 

I agree with many scholars who sent a joint open letter to Speaker Johnson on the matter stating “that impeachment wasn't intended to cover incompetence, poor judgment or bad policy. [...] it was for truly extraordinary misconduct.” I believe the accusations against Mayorkas represent more poor judgment and bad policies than a high crime. Let’s not forget that a border security proposal, a compromise between both parties in the Senate, failed to even get a vote in the House because Trump disapproved of it. I believe the House should have debated the proposal and tried to find compromises instead of trying to impeach executive members.

Multiple executive officials, including President Biden, Secretary Austin and Secretary Buttigieg, already faced impeachment threats due to their policies being perceived as wrong by some representatives. I believe this conduct goes against the Founding Fathers’ vision of the impeachment power. The Constitution is based on compromise, how is threatening someone with differing opinions a compromise? Collaborating to find common ground is a far better strategy to make the United States a better place than stalling Congress with impeachment proceedings.

Another problem with the overuse of the impeachment power is the diminution of its legitimacy. If impeachment threats and proceedings become common, they will also become meaningless. In the current context of heightened polarization and partisanship, if the political party that brought articles of impeachment does not control half of the House’s seats and two-thirds of the Senate’s seats (which are the required votes to formally impeach an official), its cause is practically doomed.

The danger with this situation, as Binder affirmed, is that any federal official, including the President, would then not feel threatened by Congress if his or her party controls the House or the Senate. Congress would be unable to balance power with the presidency and unable to use checks and balances against the executive branch. 

There is no simple or perfect solution to this issue. One that can appease the partisan tension and prevent impeachment’s delegitimization would be consulting the Supreme Court.

If half of the Senate votes to impeach an official, the Supreme Court then judges if the impeachment articles from the House are constitutional or not. If so, it returns to the Senate where at least 60 senators need to vote favorably to the impeachment (supermajority). 

This way, the President can be held accountable more easily by Congress while still requiring more than half of the Senate’s vote to impeach the President. Through its position as a non-partisan authority, the Supreme Court can influence senator’s opinions on the articles of impeachment. Even if Congress does not impeach the official following the Supreme Court’s consultation, it sends a strong message against them.

However, such a change means amending the Constitution, which will not happen until the tensions between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are reduced.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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1 Comment

Adrian H
Adrian H
Apr 12

Hello Gabriel, I 100% feel that exhaustion and even a little frustration with our combative two-party system in that ending statement. I would have to agree with you with Impeachment losing its threatening meaning and became more like a school punishment. Even when the first inklings of Trump's impeachment were being murmured, I remember everyone saying it would "solve" the problem, but, from what I understand, it really didn't. And at least from where the U.S. is today, it hasn't really gotten better since then, so, agreed with your statements and claims!

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