Democrats and a cheerleading press corps are accelerating their drive to impeach President Trump, with the release Thursday of the whistleblower complaint and a harangue of the acting director of national intelligence. Not to spoil the fun, but when is the House going to hold a roll call vote to authorize this effort to oust an elected President?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday she now supports an “official” inquiry, but nothing changed other than the political momentum for impeachment. The same committees investigating all things Trump are doing what they were doing before her statement. Mrs. Pelosi seems to think something is “official” merely because she deems it so.
This isn’t how impeachment worked against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. In those cases the full House voted to authorize the Judiciary Committee to investigate if impeachment was warranted.
On Feb. 4, 1974, Democratic House leaders introduced H.Res. 803 authorizing Judiciary “to investigate fully and completely whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to impeach President Richard M. Nixon,” according to the Congress.gov summary. The vote in favor was 410-4. The bipartisan support gave the inquiry more than partisan legitimacy, and six months later Nixon resigned after tapes were released finding he had ordered the coverup of the Watergate break-in.
Republicans followed a similar process in 1998 against Mr. Clinton. On Oct. 5, following the release of Ken Starr’s independent counsel report, the House Judiciary Committee voted 21-16 to recommend a full impeachment inquiry into whether Mr. Clinton committed perjury and obstruction of justice.
That resolution, H.Res. 581, went to the House floor on Oct. 8 and passed 258-176. Thirty-one Democrats joined Republicans to authorize the committee “to investigate fully and completely whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to exercise its constitutional power to impeach William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States of America.”
Despite her Tuesday declaration, Mrs. Pelosi has held no such vote and has signaled no intention to hold one. There is no constitutional obligation to hold such an authorizing vote. But it’s telling that Mrs. Pelosi doesn’t want to put her Members on record.
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The issue here is political accountability. Impeaching a President means nullifying the results of a presidential election, which is the core act of American democratic legitimacy. If Democrats are going to do this, they have an obligation to stand up and be counted in a way that the public can examine.
In both the Nixon and Clinton cases, the authorizing resolutions laid out the parameters of the impeachment inquiry and the powers the Judiciary Committee could exercise. A resolution that attracted Republican votes would also enhance the credibility of the probe.
Our guess is that Mrs. Pelosi is ducking a vote because she knows such a resolution in this case would be almost entirely partisan. That would hurt impeachment’s credibility with the public. She may also be trying to protect her Members in swing districts who want to wait as long as possible to go on record on impeachment. If the polls turn against impeachment and she has to settle for censuring Mr. Trump, she’d like to spare her vulnerable Members from having to vote even for an inquiry.
Process matters for political legitimacy and the credibility of American institutions. Washington now is caught up in a classic case of political mob psychology. Mrs. Pelosi’s approval unleashed pent-up partisan furies, and woe to anyone who raises a point of order.
Democratic leaders don’t really want to investigate further. They are prosecuting a case whose conclusion has already been reached. They also know that, with few exceptions, the American media have chosen to join the prosecution team. Republicans will be lectured that their duty is to oust Mr. Trump or be damned for all time by history.
This is exactly the time when democratic norms get trampled and institutions damaged. Democrats, with the media in tow, will not face the political restraints that Mr. Trump has faced when he has tried to push past traditional boundaries. Impeachment accountability for Congress should start with an “official” vote on the House floor.
—The Wall Street Journal