Saturday

November 16th, 2019

Insight

Why Not Censure The President And Move On?

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published Sept. 29, 2019

Why Not Censure The President And Move On?
A sad aspect of the Trump Ukraine controversy: the dearth of members of Congress looking for a middle-ground solution that spares America the ordeal of an impeachment process that may turn out to be a political cul-de-sac.

And there is such an option: if you think President Trump did wrong by interjecting domestic politics into a phone conversation with the leader of another nation, but also don't consider it a hanging offense worthy of removing him from office, then censure the man.

Don't impeach him. 

Don't forgive the transgression.

Just pass a censure resolution — ideally in both the House and the Senate — and move on.

There is precedent here — and it goes all the way back to 1834 and the presidency of Andrew Jackson.  

Long story short: two years prior, in 1832, Jackson had vetoed an act to re-charter the Bank of the United States, a prominent issue in Jackson's successful reelection effort that same year.

But with Jackson now in his second term and a change of power having occurred in the Senate (Jackson's fellow Democrats now in the minority), the president's political rivals demanded a paper that Jackson had read to his cabinet regarding the removal of funds from the bank.

Jackson refused to abide by the demand and the Senate moved forward with a censure resolution. It took 10 weeks of debate, but the motion passed (the technical justification: the President was guilty of assuming power not conferred by the Constitution).

The story doesn't end there. Three years later, after Democrats had regained control of the chamber, the Senate voted to reverse the censure.

It's now 185 years since that Senate drama and American politics is no less rough-edged (I'd say more so, except for the fact that Jackson killed a man in a duel years before he won the presidency . . . and his wife died just weeks after his first presidential victory, a tragedy Jackson attributed to his rivals' smear tactics).

Indeed, if Trump were censured by House Democrats (you'd need to find four GOP senators willing to turn on a Republican president for this to happen in the other chamber), the wounds would last. And perhaps a Republican House, one day back in majority control, would undo the stain on the Trump record.

Just as: the AOC wing of House Democrats would consider a Trump censure motion a slap-on-the-wrist — the equivalent of celebrity justice (think: the actress Felicity Huffman doing two weeks of "hard time" for scamming college admissions offices).

Otherwise, we're looking at an impeachment drama that seems problematic, in part, because we're soon to enter the fourth year of Trump's presidency — an election year, in case you haven't noticed. Clinton's impeachment occurred in the sixth year of his presidency; Nixon's in the sixth year as well.

If you check the 1998 timeline, the House Judiciary Committee voted on Oct. 5 of that year to launch an impeachment inquiry. Two of four impeachment articles were approved by the full House on Dec. 17. The Senate trial began on Jan. 7, with members voting on the two articles on Feb. 12.

In 2020 terms, that would be a vote to convict or quit Trump . . . a day after the New Hampshire primary.   

And there's one other problem — one that drives voters nuts and has helped to drive congressional approval ratings into the ground: the prospect of political double standards.

Here's a quote from House Minority Leader Whip David Bonior, the number-two Democratic in that chamber at the time of the Clinton impeachment saga: "People are angry. They are frustrated. They are bewildered. They want to know why a rump in this Congress wants to hijack an election and take away the right of the American people to have their president represent them."

Congratulations, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy: your press release condemning an eventual House impeachment vote just wrote itself.

There's actually more to Bonior's rant from two decades past — and it merits repeating here: "This House is out of touch. It is out of control. And it is so consumed that they have denied us a chance to vote on one option — the only option — that commands the support of the American people, and that is censure."

What Bonior was alluding to: for weeks, Democrats in the minority had pushed for a floor vote — censuring Bill Clinton for his behavior and substituting a censure resolution for impeachment articles by sending the latter back to the House Judiciary Committee. The parliamentary tactic was rejected as non-germane; an appeal vote failed and House Democrats briefly exited the chamber in protest.

The question in today's House: why aren't majority Democrats doing now as they did then and push a censure motion? Surely, they understand that the odds of convicting Trump in a Senate impeachment trial are slim at best (20 Republican senators, many from deep-red states, would have to flip).

Moreover, put House Republicans on the spot with regard to a censure vote and it makes for trickier politics than impeachment — at least, I think so. A GOP member could dismiss an impeachment inquiry as partisan sour grapes (Democrats never got over 2016's results; they've been gunning for Trump since before he took office; Ukraine is neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor, etc.).

But turning a blind eye to Trump's dragging Joe Biden in his conservation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky? That's a tougher justification, in my opinion.

Maybe we would be better off with 1830's-style politics. Back then, dueling to the death happened before lawmakers came to Washington.

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