This post is a part of a series called “Help Me Understand,” where we practice the art of dialogue about important issues. The focus is to come around the table and learn to have healthy conversations with people of diverse backgrounds in order to learn.
As I write this, the impeachment process of President Donald Trump is passing from the pages of current events into the annals of history. Back when the idea of his impeachment was first introduced, I realized to my dismay that I did not understand the process of impeachment at all. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know how this constitutional check on executive power worked.
I had a lot of questions. How does the process begin? What were the roles of the House and the Senate? Who leads them during the process? What is impeachment, anyway?
So I hit the books (or rather, I hit the internet, where the full text of the Constitution of the United States is easily accessible.) This is what I learned.
What does impeachment mean exactly?
Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution states that “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.”
First, note that it’s not just the President who can be impeached. The Vice President and other civil officers are also subject to impeachment.
Take a look at the phrasing “removed from office on Impeachment.” This means that removal from office may follow on impeachment. Removal and impeachment are two separate things. Impeachment is a charge. While removal from office happens after a conviction.
Impeachment is a charge. While removal from office happens after a conviction.
The last part of the section tells us that impeachment is for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Impeachment is not just for any old crime. It has to be for actions that violate the office of the civil officer under scrutiny.
Where does the House of Representatives come in?
The Constitution’s Article I, Section 2 grants the House the power of impeachment. This means that when articles of impeachment (or criminal charges) are filed against a government official, the House must vote whether or not to impeach. The simple majority wins, which means that the vote with the most counts determines the outcome.
What’s the role of the Senate?
Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution grants the Senate power to try impeachments, or, to convict the impeached person of the charges the House made. Everyone involved at this point is under oath or affirmation (an affirmation is a commitment to the truth made by someone who cannot take an oath for religious reasons.)
If the official under trial is the President of the United States, then the Chief Justice of the Senate presides over the trial. A conviction requires a senate supermajority, which means that at least two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict.
The next clause outlines the limits of the Senate’s power. The Senate can only remove officials from office and vote to ban officials permanently. An impeachment trial is not a criminal trial. Criminal trials may take place separately.
An impeachment trial is not a criminal trial.
That’s the process. Impeachments have happened more often than you might think. In fact, 20 government officials have been impeached since 1799. This operation has been leveraged throughout the history of the United States.
In regards to President Trump’s impeachment and acquittal, I’m actually grateful for it. His impeachment process gave me the opportunity to dig a little deeper into the U.S. Constitution and the mechanics of its checks and balances.