How will Congress react to Starr's report?

August 13, 1998|By Marianne Means

WASHINGTON -- Now that President Clinton's ordeal in the Monica Lewinsky saga is about to shift from the courts to Congress, the prospect of launching an impeachment process looks far less politically palatable than it did when it was merely distant speculation.

The fantasy of bringing down a president over moral impropriety and perjury is one thing; the reality of probable voter anger at those hypocrites who would levy such a disproportionate punishment, quite another.

Congressional report

If Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr sends a report to Congress accusing the president of lying about a sexual dalliance and encouraging others to lie as well, Congress cannot ignore it. Partisan zealots and moral purists will demand some action, no matter how inconclusive and circumstantial the evidence may be.

But a rush to impeach the president for conduct that was reckless and disingenuous but posed no constitutional crisis or serious abuse of power is unlikely to be a popular move. A majority of Americans already believe that the president misbehaved but think he's doing a good job running the country and ought to stay in office.

Besides, kicking Mr. Clinton out would leave the Republicans with an incumbent Al Gore to face in the year 2000 presidential contest, not a pleasing prospect from their point of view.

So what to do? There is another way for Congress to kick Mr. Clinton in the teeth without actually pounding him to smithereens. And that is to consider censuring him instead.

Since Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott suggested the idea as a possible alternative, it has attracted increasing discussion.

It is not clear that Congress has the constitutional authority to formally rebuke a president, short of the somber ritual of impeachment for "high crimes and misdemeanors." Such a move would be plowing virtually untested ground.

But it would have the momentary political charm of putting a legislative and legal end to this tawdry tale more quickly.

Only one president, Andrew Johnson, has been impeached by the House. It happened in 1868, during the post-Civil War turmoil, but the Senate, sitting as a trial court, acquitted him -- by only one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed for conviction. In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee LTC recommended the impeachment of Richard Nixon, who then resigned to avoid that fate.

Some 164 years ago, Andrew Jackson became the only president to be censured, setting an ominous example that politicians have thus far not cared to repeat. Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, recounts the dramatic episode in his authoritative two-volume history of the U.S. Senate.

The rationale for the censure, approved by the Senate, 23-18, on March 28, 1834, was that Jackson was acting like a despot. The real issue, however, was strictly a power struggle among the era's political giants.

Jackson had refused to recharter the elite United States Bank and withdrew its government deposits, effectively ending the bank's self-serving dominance over U.S. monetary policy. This angered the bank's powerful allies, who formed the Whig Party and demanded Jackson's censure.

After their victory, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, a Jackson backer, dismissed the censure as "nothing but an empty fulmination." And so it proved to be.

Political changes

The House refused to go along with it. In the congressional elections later that fall, Jackson's supporters increased their majority in the House and took control of the Senate.

Two years later, the pro-Jackson Martin Van Buren was elected to the White House and the Democrats tightened their grip on Congress. The political climate became favorable to clearing Jackson's name.

The Whig Party, defeated on the bank issue and in the congressional and presidential elections, lasted only another 30 years.

The Senate has been more effective in censuring its own members, although it has applied the penalty only nine times, under great provocation. Censure does not remove a member's right to vote or speak or serve on committees, although it tends to isolate the guilty person socially and politically.

It is less harsh than the punishment of expulsion, a rarely used remedy last recommended by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics in 1995 against Sen. Bob Packwood, a Republican from Oregon. He was cited for sexual misconduct, influence peddling and obstruction of the committee's investigation. Mr. Packwood resigned rather than let the recommendation go to a full Senate vote.

In any Clinton case, the House Judiciary Committee would be the first congressional entity to tackle the issue of impeachment, censure, reprimand or no action. In past decades the House has censured several members, mostly for criminal offenses, but it tends toward lighter reprimands for ethical violations. Speaker Newt Gingrich, for instance, received a fine and a reprimand in 1997 for improper use of tax-exempt dollars for political purposes, and he was allowed to keep his post as House leader.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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