Dec 13, 2019

Understanding Impeachment and What it Means for Texas Politics

Reporting Texas

In August, a C.I.A. officer assigned to the White House filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that President Donald Trump abused his power to compel Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Trump’s potential 2020 presidential rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. “I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” the whistleblower wrote. The complaint led to impeachment proceedings in the U.S. House of Representatives, which are ongoing.

In a climate of political division and with uncertain waters ahead, Reporting Texas asked Stephen Vladeck, professor of law with a specialty in constitutional and foreign relations law at the University of Texas at Austin, to explain Impeachment and its potential effect on Texas politics. Herewith excerpts:

Stephen Vladeck, professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin. Photo courtesy of Brian Birzer

The process:
The impeachment process was contemplated by the founders as a pretty significant feature of checks and balances, where it wouldn’t just be the next election that would be a referendum on misconduct by federal officers. Rather that if you had a majority of the House of Representatives and a supermajority of the Senate who all agreed that a federal officer committed impeachable offenses, that they could be removed from office. This runs through the Constitution. From the beginning it was understood that this would be a non-electoral process for accountability for misconduct. And it wasn’t limited to the president or vice president. Some of the earliest efforts to impeach federal officers involved federal judges. So there’s a history of impeachment as this critical and very democratic check on officers run amok.

The current state of political polarization:
Impeachment proceedings are usually pretty divisive. Many of us are probably too young to remember how divisive the Clinton impeachment was. I think [current divisiveness is] more as a symptom of the tribalism of our contemporary politics: there’s no cross-party appeal. There are no Democrats standing up and saying “we should be doing this differently,” [just as] there are no Republicans saying “we should let this process play out.” Everyone’s in their camps, and that’s the biggest difference here: there are no voices in the middle.

Next steps if the House votes to impeach:
I suspect the Senate will not vote to remove the president. But a lot can happen between now and then. I think we were in a very similar position for much of early 1974, where it looked like there were enough votes in the House to impeach President Nixon but it wasn’t clear that there were enough votes in the Senate to remove him. And then we had the Watergate tape, the smoking gun tape, come out which really destroyed what little support Nixon still had among Republican senators. If the Senate started this process today, it’s not hard to see how it would go. If it’s four months from now and we’re on the far side of ever more damning evidence against the President, with an eye toward the elections next fall … I have to hope that there’s at least something that could happen that would get the Senate to not just default to tribalism. If there’s evidence of that, it’s not yet in existence.

The effect on Democratic hopefuls:
[The Democratic primaries] would have been a lot messier if the Speaker had not gone all in on formalizing the process, because that would have put the Democratic presidential candidates in the tricky position of having to support Pelosi or not. I think at this point it’s not really a wedge that’s going to matter in the Democratic primary process. Maybe that will change when we’re on the far side of the House voting, but that seems to be one of the issues that the democratic candidates are all in agreement. 

The implications for Texas politics:
The most likely effect will be in the House races next fall. We’re going to have a bunch of competitive house races, including open seats where a bunch of Republicans are retiring. I don’t know whether those races in turn will become a referendum on impeachment. And even if they are, how that cuts given the differences in some of these districts. 

Just going on the last month, the national media tried to portray both the Kentucky and Louisiana gubernatorial races as referenda on impeachment. If they were, I don’t know if they were bad for the Democrats. I don’t know how it’s going to play out but I think the place it’s most likely going to have an impact is the House — those house seats where you’ve got open seats or vulnerable incumbents.

What precedent this sets for the presidential office:
It’s so hard to say now. I don’t worry that this means that every time one party controls the House, they’ll impeach the president of the other party. I think President Trump has stood out in some pretty significant ways from his predecessors. If the precedent we set is that presidents are not above the law and that includes conduct that may be technically legal but deeply bad for the country, I don’t know why we should be worried about that precedent.