Blah Blah Impeachment Blah Blah Madison Blah

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The looniness of today is regarding a speech by James Madison to Congress in 1789, in which Madison said:

Perhaps the great danger, as has been observed, of abuse in the executive power, lies in the improper continuance of bad men in office. But the power we contend for will not enable him to do this; for if an unworthy man be continued in office by an unworthy president, the house of representatives can at any time impeach him, and the senate can remove him, whether the president chuses or not. The danger then consists merely in this: the president can displace from office a man whose merits require that he should be continued in it. What will be the motives which the president can feel for such abuse of his power, and the restraints that operate to prevent it? In the first place, he will be im-peachable by this house, before the senate, for such an act of mal-administration; for I contend that the wanton removal of meritorious officers would subject him to impeachment and removal from his own high trust. But what can be his motives for displacing a worthy man? It must be that he may fill the place with an unworthy creature of his own.

This, it is implied, tells us that Bush should be impeached, because of the U.S. Attorneys who were fired. The insipid discussion dwells on whether Bush "wanted" it; but Madison's point is not that this particular "crime" merits impeachment, but that simply being a bad executive merits impeachment. Hyperfocusing on the Gonzales flap is nonsensical when you consider that this incident is but one incredibly minor part to what many people consider to be the mismanagement of the government.

According to Madison, it doesn't even matter if you can prove Bush had anything to do with the U.S. Attorney firings. You think he is a terrible manager, you impeach him and remove him. That's it.

Madison is exactly right, too, when it comes to legality. The Constitution allows impeachment for any reason. And the Court won't stop it, and in my mind, should not.

But, this is not a legal question. This is a purely political question. You really think many Senators will impeach the President for firing someone they think was meritorious, when those same Senators may wish to exercise that exact same power someday?

We saw this just a decade after Madison's speech, when President John Adams, with a Federalist Congress, fired a popular Federalist from his cabinet, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. Pickering was a close friend of Alexander Hamilton, the most powerful man in the Federalist party (despite Adams also being a Federalist).

However, the Congress did not even seriously consider impeaching Adams for firing a meritorious officer. Why? Well, as a famous radio voice says, now here's the rest of the story:

Can he accomplish this end (of firing a worthy man to replace him with an unworthy one)? No; he can place no man in the vacancy whom the senate shall not approve; and if he could fill the vacancy with the man he might chuse, I am sure he would have little inducement to make an improper removal. Let us consider the consequences. The injured man will be supported by the popular opinion; the community will take side with him against the president; it will facilitate those combinations, and give success to those exertions which will be pursued to prevent his re-election. To displace a man of high merit, and who from his station may be supposed a man of extensive influence, are considerations which will excite serious reflections beforehand in the mind of any man who may fill the presidential chair; the friends of those individuals, and the public sympathy will be against him. If this should not produce his impeachment before the senate, it will amount to an impeachment before the community, who will have the power of punishment by refusing to re-elect him.

That is: the President would have a tough time of getting much harm past the Congress, and even then, would still be accountable to the people.

Impeachment is a huge step to take, and you surely make enemies if you try it, and set a precedent -- a bad one if undertaken frivolously -- for yourself or members of your party. And if the offense is truly serious, "impeachment before the community" will usually be sufficient.

That's not to say impeachment should never happen, but the consequences and risks are so high that it is rarely a wise move. Madison did not have much to say on that subject, in part due to his desire to gain acceptance for the Constitution (even after ratification, there was still a huge risk of disunion that he and Hamilton fought to avoid), and in part perhaps due to his naivite. But impeachment should be a last resort.

I am sure many Democrats think that we are long past that point with Bush. But they should consider that it is unlikely most of the country agrees with them, and that if they do attempt impeachment, this will be a precedent set for the next Democratic President, too. And this is why, even though impeachment can happen for any reason, it has been reserved in recent years for actual verifiable wrongdoing (such as lying under oath, and even that was, in retrospect, a big political mistake).

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