"Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office."
- President Richard Nixon, in the Oval Office at the White House, on August 8, 1974
Impeachment alone doesn't remove presidents ...
In the entire history of the United States, only two presidents have ever been impeached, which were Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon was never actually impeached by either house of Congress. He was, however, credibly threatened with it during the Watergate scandal, and thus forced to resign in this way. It takes both houses of Congress, you see, to remove a president from office. Thus, when the Senate refused to remove Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton during their impeachment trials, the fact that they had been impeached by the House of Representatives to start this process had only a symbolic value. They had to be convicted by the Senate after this to be actually removed from office.
... although one president resigned under the threat of impeachment (and subsequent removal)
It is thus one of the ironies of presidential history that both of the impeachments of an American president in our history failed to remove their intended target, while the only president ever to be forced out of office did so only under threat of it. Besides making the point about how both houses of Congress have to be on board with this to pull off a successful removal (as with Nixon), there is one other point to be made here about the power of impeachment, which is that it doesn't have to be actually exercised to fulfill its intended purpose - the mere threat of it (when made credibly) is the only thing that has ever removed a president from office (so far, at least).
Impeachment is an important check even when it's just threatened
It has often been noted that the power of impeachment is a "check" on the executive branch. But if you look at the numbers of actual impeachments of presidents (which is only two) and successful removals of presidents (which is just the one), you might get the feeling that impeachment isn't all that important in this country, since it's been so seldom invoked. Nonetheless, the fact that Congress actually has this power is still a vital check on the executive branch, I should note here, because it doesn't have to actually be used to influence a president's decisions. A president knows that if he (or she) offends enough members of Congress by breaking their laws (since they make the laws), he (or she) can be completely removed by this important power; and so they think twice and carefully before approaching the boundaries set forth by the Constitution. (This is not to say that they never overstep these boundaries, of course, but that they approach them more cautiously - and more rarely - than they would do without this power. They also do it more clandestinely, I should note here, but that's a subject for another post.)
United States Capitol, the building where the Congress meets
Impeachment gives presidents a major incentive to obey the law
The other forgotten advantage of this power is that it gives the president a major incentive to obey the law. This is not a small thing, when you consider how executives in many other countries are often above the law. A president can only be removed in this country if they're caught committing a crime. This can be irksome when certain bad presidents make themselves untouchable by following the law (or at least appearing to do so), but it can nonetheless prevent a great deal of mischief by motivating the scoundrel not to put himself above the law (or at least get caught at doing so).
Capitol Dome at night
Impeachment saves bloodshed and violence
One last thought might be helpful here: removing a powerful dictator from office requires actual or threatened violence; while removing an American president from office requires only actual or threatened impeachment - or just "waiting them out" until their term expires, if the faster methods don't work here. The existence of this power thus saves bloodshed and violence, and is also worth having on this account.
Footnote to this blog post:
Impeachment also works against judges in this country, so some of the same reasoning can also be applied to the judicial branch - something which is especially important, when judges could otherwise serve for life most of the time. The power of impeachment has been actually exercised 15 times against federal judges. Eight of those judges were actually removed by this power (including three who were also disqualified from holding future office), and three of the other judges were forced to resign because of their trials. Only four of the impeached judges were acquitted. Thus, the power of impeachment is also important against the judicial branch, even at the times when it's only threatened - just as it is with presidents.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
The executive branch: A single president subject to impeachment and removal
United States Census can influence a state's votes in Congress (and the presidential elections)
My review of PBS's "Nixon" movie (which discusses the events leading to his resignation)
Part of a series about
U. S. Constitution
The Constitution itself, and the story behind it
Convention at Philadelphia: The writing of the Constitution (1787)
Preamble: The Constitution's mission statement, with some thoughts about separation of powers
States' rights: The conflict between the "several states" and the federal government
The Congress: Its power to make laws, and the president's power to veto them (in some cases)
Powers of Congress: A few reasons why the Congressional elections are so important
Frequency of elections: So how long do all of these people serve, anyway?
Representation: So who decides how many votes each state gets?
Slavery: The complicated legacy of the "Three-Fifths Clause"
The presidency: Powers of the executive, and their being subject to impeachment
Threats of impeachment: The power of Congress to keep presidents in line
The courts: "Good behaviour," some important judicial powers, and how they're appointed
Miscellaneous: Amendment process, "supreme law of the land," and some closing remarks
Debates over the Constitution, then and since
Debates over ratification: Whether to adopt the Constitution in the first place
The "Federalist Papers": Frequently asked questions about them, and why they're important
Debates over checks & balances: Do they actually conflict with separation of powers?
The Bill of Rights: Important in the debates over ratification (adopted 1791)
The First Amendment: Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and peaceable assemblies
Congressional pay: The amendment that never made it into the Bill of Rights
Abolishing slavery: The things that led up to the famous antislavery amendment
The Constitution today: Some thoughts about civics education
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