It is easy to threaten impeachment on cable news and even easier to promise impeachment on the campaign trail. Turns out, though, that the actual business of removing a public official from office for the requisite "high crimes and misdemeanors" is actually pretty difficult.
Ask Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., about the impeachment process, and he will describe it with just one adjective: “all-consuming.”
After four decades in Congress, the old bull should know. He has managed more impeachments than anyone since the moment the Founding Fathers decided to empower Congress with the authority in Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution some two centuries ago.
While it's a difficult job, Sensenbrenner is pretty good at using this specific check on the executive and judicial branches. He was the one who guided the House when they charged former President Bill Clinton in 1999 for perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton would get off the hook, acquitted by the Senate after a five-week trial. Others weren’t as lucky: Sensenbrenner has collected the scalps of three federal judges.
But even when the defendants were guilty as sin, like Walter Nixon of Mississippi, who was already sentenced to five years in prison by a civil court for perjury after lying to prosecutors about marijuana smuggling, kicking the bums out is a herculean task.
“You don’t know how much work it is,” Sensenbrenner told the Washington Examiner editorial board during a recent meeting, even if it is “impeaching a judge that is in jail for some type of crime, refuses to resign, and is collecting a full judicial salary while sitting in the slammer.”
What makes this constitutional power so unwieldy? The greatest deliberative body in the world, the Senate, requires an overwhelming amount of evidence. Call it constitutional prudence or call it snobbery, but that upper chamber won’t accept the verdict of any other court. The House makes the charges, and the Senate won’t accept any evidence or testimony from anywhere else. Even if the defendant has already been convicted, they make their own verdict.
This means leg work and a lot of it. Impeaching anyone, Sensenbrenner cautions, requires lawmakers “to shut down the judiciary committee for several months to get their ducks in order.”
Good news for the accused, this is bad news for Democrats who are licking their chops at the chance of impeaching anyone in the current administration. Democrats, especially Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, who is slated to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, ought to take notice.
Sensenbrenner wouldn’t be surprised if Nadler tries to impeach President Trump. He wouldn’t be shocked to see Nadler take a shot at history and try to impeach newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Congress has only ever managed to knock a single judge off the high court. Sensenbrenner says going after the newest justice “would be a waste of time” because of the careful vetting that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, undertook during the confirmation process.
Because of arrogance or ignorance, Nadler isn’t convinced. He was overheard bragging over the phone while hurtling south on the train between New York and Washington, D.C., about his plans to go “all-in” to impeach Kavanaugh on charges of perjury.
Bragging over the phone is just as easy as posturing on cable and on the campaign trail. Politicians like to talk when it comes to impeachment. Few of them can do the actual work. Sensenbrenner knows the difference.