Article II, Section 4
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.
Impeachment is the only constitutional way to remove a President (or another official or a judge) for misconduct. Publius notes in Federalist 64 that the “fear of punishment and disgrace” will encourage good behavior in the executive. Impeachment is an integral part of maintaining the separation of powers and the republican form of government.
To understand the impeachment process, we must look to the related clauses in Article I. Unlike the Rules and Expulsion Clause, by which the house to which a Member of Congress belongs may expel that member, the legislature and the judiciary participate in the impeachment of a president. A vote for impeachment is not equivalent to a vote for immediate removal. Impeachment refers to the House’s vote to bring charges against an officer, and that vote begins a particular process. After the House impeaches a president, the Senate tries him with the Chief Justice presiding over the proceedings. In Federalist 65, Publius notes that the Senate would have the requisite independence needed to try impeachments: “What other body would be likely to feel confidence enough in its own situation to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an individual accused and the representatives of the people, his accusers?” The supermajority requirement guards against impeachments brought by the House for purely political reasons. The president may not pardon a person who has been impeached.
Impeachment disciplines a President who abused his constitutional responsibilities. As Stephen Presser suggests in his essay on Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 in the Heritage Guide to the Constitution, when the President commits an impeachable offense, the Members of the House are obligated by their oath to preserve the Constitution to deal with the offense. But, what constitutes an impeachable offense? At the Constitutional Convention, the delegates initially proposed “mal-practice and neglect of duty” as grounds for impeachment, but the Committee of Detail narrowed the basis to treason, bribery, and corruption. George Mason suggested “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” as another grounds for impeachment when his previous suggestion of “maladministration” was rejected for rendering the President’s too dependent upon Congress. Impeachment was meant to encompass serious offenses, but not to be a political tool to block a president from exercising his authority.
Impeachment is a remedy to be used in extreme situations, and Congress has used this device sparingly over the past two hundred twenty years. Only two Presidents have been impeached (Richard Nixon resigned before the House voted to impeach), and only a handful of judges have been impeached and subsequently removed from office. No president has been successfully removed from office.
In Federalist 77, Publius explains that “being at all times liable to impeachment” would prevent the president from abusing his power. Impeachment is not equivalent to a simple majority vote of no confidence, as is sufficient to remove a prime minister in parliamentary system. Rather, it is a process that engages the legislature and the judiciary in a grave constitutional act to remove the head of state. Perhaps it is so rarely used, and so rarely needed, because the stakes are so high.
Julia Shaw is the Research Associate and Program Manager of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation.