Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and other Republicans calling for the impeachment of President Barack Obama might want to take a look at the history books and the U.S. Constitution before getting too excited about the idea.
Congress rarely uses its power to impeach, and when it has, impeachment has only infrequently -- and in the case of a president, never -- resulted in removal from office. Congress has initiated impeachment proceedings more than 60 times in the history of the United States. Just 19 of those cases have been tried by the Senate, and only eight federal judges have ever been convicted and removed from office.
Although House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has maintained he is not interested in pursuing impeachment, a top White House aide said Friday that he expected House Republicans to do just that. And a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll shows that one-third of Americans and two-thirds of Republicans believe Obama should be impeached. These numbers reflect an increasingly popular view in conservative circles, which Palin gave voice to earlier this month when she claimed the recent surge of undocumented immigrants at the border was an example of the president's "rewarding of lawlessness."
But Republicans have already cited a number of reasons they're hesitant to file articles of impeachment against the president, including impracticality and potential political consequences in November. Perhaps most importantly, however, both history and the language of the Constitution suggest they'd fail if they tried.
In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned rather than face potential removal from office after the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against him, in the face of overwhelming evidence that he'd used "dirty tricks" against his political rivals. GOP lawmakers are also likely wary of the lessons learned in their efforts to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998. Clinton's approval rating actually jumped to an all-time high after the House successfully impeached him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clinton was later acquitted by the Senate.
So, why do some conservatives appear to think this would be more of a Nixon than a Clinton situation?
According to Article II, section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, "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." Palin and others have called for Obama's impeachment over a number of perceived scandals, ranging from the mishandling of Obamacare's rollout to his taking military action without getting approval from Congress. But it's unclear, really, whether they're suggesting that his role in these controversies constitutes "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" -- Palin's column mentions none of those terms.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, earlier this month offered perhaps the most sober rebuke to the calls for impeachment.
“The Constitution is very clear as to what constitutes grounds for impeachment of the President of the United States," he told ABC's "This Week." "He has not committed the kind of criminal acts that call for that.”
To get an idea of the kind of crimes that do lead to impeachment, the most recent successful proceeding was in 2010, when the Senate voted to remove G. Thomas Porteous, Jr. from the federal bench. Porteous was charged with taking bribes from lawyers who had business before his court. Porteous' removal was the first time that the Senate had removed a federal judge in more than 20 years.
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