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What is the impeachment process?

  • Published at 12:04 am October 5th, 2019
Donald Trump
Photo: Reuters

And how will it play out?

The Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s announcement that investigations, perhaps leading to the impeachment of President Trump, will commence, promises an increasingly shrill debate which is likely to cause serious disturbances. There are two parts to this story: What the impeachment process is about and how it will play out, and the underlying story of what is happening.

What does impeachment mean?

As the writers of the American constitution structured the political system, it was decided to have a president as a head of state vested with considerable powers. The only alternative was to have a king with symbolic powers, but this was dangerous and never seriously considered. Instead, a strong president would be elected directly through a complicated system but would not be linked to Congress.

If the president does bad things how can he be removed? This problem does not appear in modern parliamentary systems. Now countries can have symbolic presidents or kings who are politically limited, so getting rid of them is not important. A prime minister who misbehaves can be removed by parliament without difficulty. It is only the strong president, elected independently of legislature, which presents a problem.

The writers of the American constitution solved this by allowing the impeachment of the president. The process is as follows: The House of Representatives impeaches the president by passing a resolution requiring a majority of the members present to affirm. The impeachment resolution is a charge sheet that sets out what the president has done that leads the House to try to remove him from office. 

A trial is then held with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding, the Senate acts as a jury, and persons from the House of Representatives serve as prosecutors. Evidence is presented and witnesses heard. The Senate convicts if two-thirds of the Senators vote to remove the president from office. If the president is convicted, he leaves office and the vice-president becomes president.

The language of the constitution states: “The president, vice president and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

“Other high crimes” is not otherwise defined. As people sometimes say: “You may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it.”

Impeaching President Trump

The impeachment process will take 5-6 months before it is finally resolved. The election campaign will get underway just about when the impeachment process ends. It will end before the time the Republicans select their nominee for president, so if Trump is thrown out of office the Republicans can choose another candidate. 

Trump has stated that he will not cooperate with the Democrats, so one should be concerned during the months when relations between the legislative and executive branches will be limited.

The basic functions of appropriating funds for running the government may be at risk if there is no agreement between the two political parties. On November 21, 2019, the government will run out of funding unless Congress acts. Government expenditures must be approved by Congress and to date, Congress has approved expenditures only to November 21. Will Congress be able to reach an agreement that will be acceptable to the president? 

Trump’s reckless behaviour, amplified by the impeachment threat, may lead him to shut down the government. He will make demands that must be agreed to or he will let it shut down; in a way, he does not care about the adverse impact of closing the government down.

Besides the budget, there are many issues requiring legislation of importance for Americans. Expect nothing to be passed by Congress and signed. The courts may declare the medical insurance program introduced by Obama to be unconstitutional, leaving tens of millions of Americans without medical insurance. There will be no easy resolution to this. 

Trump will carry on his trade policies but he will not be able to get legislative approval for any agreement he reaches. This will weaken his ability to negotiate agreements since everyone will know that it will not pass Congress before the election. The Chinese will wait this out knowing that even if Trump survives the impeachment attempt, he has a good chance of losing the election. 

Trump’s greatest power is that he can start a war. So far, Trump has kept the peace, but he may be tempted to start shooting to distract from the impeachment or to establish the idea that the US is threatened and all must pull together.

The evidence is mounting in early October that the American economy is slowing down. Certainly the European and Chinese economies are slowing. The sources of this slow down are complicated: The trade war Trump is waging, the expectations that the American economy is slowing, private investment being insensitive to changes in interest rates, and the inability of the American government to make progress on the financing of infrastructure. 

The outlook for private consumption is not bright: Housing prices are high, automobile demand is maxed out, medical costs are rising. This suggests that increases in demand arising from expansionary fiscal policy would raise prices rather than lead to greater production. 

To convict Trump, 20 of the 53 Republican Senators would have to vote against him. This seems unlikely and would only happen if there were some dramatic revelations about Trump’s wrong doings.  There are now about ten Senators that might vote to convict Trump. It is very unlikely that an additional ten Senators would withdraw support.

Outcome

There will be many surprises about Trump and his administration in the next few weeks but the Republican Senators will stick with him. 

He will not be convicted and will remain in office for the rest of his term. 

But during this period there will be great risks as the violence of the feelings and the inability to compromise will create turbulence in the governance of the US. 

Forrest Cookson is an American economist.