Accountability of Elected Officials
If the President and/or Congress breaks the law, what redress do the people or opposing party have?
You are asking an important question – how do we hold our elected officials accountable?
Elections are the ultimate form of accountability in the hands of citizens. By electing new people to the House and Senate, the institution changes. By electing a new President, the Administration and its policies change.
Other than waiting for the next election, in the case of the President, the redress for misconduct is impeachment. In the case of Congress as a whole, it cannot be held accountable as an entire institution, but individual Members can.
Members of Congress
The removal of Members of the U.S. Congress is left to two methods: a) the wish of voters to hold them accountable for their actions by refusing to re-elect them in the next regular election, or b) using the expulsion clause of the Constitution.
Some states have special recall election laws aimed at state officials and legislators. There is no recall procedure provided for in the U.S. Constitution for federal officials. Recall remains a state remedy for state legislators. The Supreme Court has never ruled directly on the recall of a Member of Congress, but has confirmed in related rulings that the terms and qualifications of Members of Congress, as federal constitutional officers, are not subject to the authority of a state law. (For an extensive discussion of Supreme Court jurisprudence on this topic, see “Recall of Legislators and the Removal of Members of Congress from Office” in the Resources section below.)
The second method, expulsion, is provided for in the Constitution:
U.S. Constitution, Article I, Sec. 5, Clause 2:
“Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly behavior, and with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.”
A Member of the House or Senate can be expelled from their respective institution by a 2/3 vote. The House and Senate each have their own rules of procedure for considering expulsions.
Expulsions have been rare in congressional history because Members prefer to let constituents decide whether or not to remove a sitting Member by simply not re-electing him/her. Also, Members often resign from their office before any expulsion vote can be held.
In the Senate, 15 Senators have been expelled: one in 1797 and 14 for treason during the Civil War. In the House, five Representatives have been expelled - three for treason during the Civil War, and two for bribery (Rep. Ozzie Meyers, D-PA) in 1980 and (Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio) in 2002.
The Constitution gives the House of Representatives alone the power to decide whether or not to impeach (charge) a President.
U.S. Constitution, Article I, Sec. 2, Cl. 5:
“The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”
The process in the House begins when any Member of the House of Representatives introduces an impeachment resolution, which is usually referred to the House Judiciary Committee for investigation and hearings, prior to sending Articles of Impeachment to the full House for its consideration.
Articles of impeachment are akin to an indictment. They must contain specific charges. There can be one charge or many. Each charge is drafted as a separate Article of Impeachment. The Constitution defines the grounds for impeachment as follows:
U.S. Constitution, Article II, Sec. 4:
“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.”
Although treason and bribery are well understood, there is no precise definition given of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” It is up to the House of Representatives to make the determination if the President’s misconduct rises to that Constitutional level. Impeachment need not be limited to criminal violations under existing statutes. Any betrayal of the public trust in the eyes of the House of Representatives qualifies if sufficient votes can be garnered to make the charge.
If the House of Representatives adopts any one Article of Impeachment (by majority vote), regardless of how many Articles may be before them, the President is considered impeached. In the case of the most recent Impeachment of President Bill Clinton, there were four Articles of Impeachment. The House adopted three of them, and defeated one. Whether the President is guilty or not of the alleged wrongdoing is up to the Senate to decide:
U.S. Constitution, Article I, Sec. 3, Cl. 6:
“The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.”
A trial is conducted in the Senate, presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the case against the President is argued before the Justice and the Senate by Members of the House on behalf of their chamber. The Articles of Impeachment adopted by the House are the specific violations brought against the President in a Senate trial. Any Articles not adopted by the House are not held against him in the impeachment trial.
The Senate can adopt one or all of the Articles of Impeachment by a 2/3 vote. If any one of the Articles of Impeachment are adopted, the President is considered convicted of the charges. If convicted, the Senate must then decide what the appropriate form of punishment should be. The Constitution gives them two choices:
- Removal from office [automatic, with no separate vote]
- Removal from office and a ban on holding any future public office
[requires a separate vote decided by a simple majority.]
If the President is removed from office, the Vice President assumes the Presidency.
The premise of the Impeachment clauses of the Constitution are geared more toward protecting the public interest by removing a corrupt official [President, Vice President, federal civil officials, federal judges] than to rendering judgment or punishment against the individual convicted. The Constitution does not address any criminal culpability on the part of the President, leaving that to the judicial system. After he is removed from office, and an ordinary citizen, it is conceivable the President could be charged with violations of U.S. law and stand trial in U.S. courts. The Constitution states:
U.S. Constitution, Article I, Sec. 3, Cl. 7:
“Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”
To learn more about the impeachment process and the expulsion of Members of Congress, consult the following resources. CRS reports are available free of charge by requesting a copy from any one of your three Members of Congress. Many of them can be emailed to you. You can also find some CRS reports posted online by doing a Google search of a specific title.
“Recall of Legislators and the Removal of Members of Congress from Office” by Jack Maskell, Legislative Attorney, American Law Division, Congressional Research Service. CRS Report #RL30016, 14 pp. January 7, 2008.
“Expulsion, Censure, Reprimand, and Fine: Legislative Discipline in the House of Representatives” by Jack Maskell, Legislative Attorney, American Law Division, Congressional Research Service. CRS Report # RL31382, 27 pp. January 25, 2005.
“An Overview of the Impeachment Process” by T.J. Halstead, Legislative Attorney. American Law Division, Congressional Research Service. CRS Report #98-806, 6 pp. April 20, 2005.
“Impeachment: An Overview of Constitutional Provisions, Procedure, and Practice” by Elizabeth B. Bazan and Anna C. Henning, Legislative Attorneys, American Law Division, Congressional Research Service. CRS Report #98-186, 33 pp. April 26, 2010.
“Guide to Impeachment and Censure Materials Online” by JURIST: The Law Professors' Network: http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/impeach.htm
“Clinton Accused” by The Washington Post. Complete archival record contains: Impeachment at a Glance, News Stories, the House Impeachment Vote, the Senate Trial, Behind the Scenes with Bob Woodward, House and Senate Votes, Databases, Opinions, Editorials and Cartoons, Multimedia and Photo Galleries.