December 19th marked the 15th anniversary of the impeachment of then- President Bill Clinton by the House of Representatives. As the first member of Congress to file an official impeachment document and one of the 13 House members who prosecuted Clinton’s subsequent trial in the Senate, I was intimately involved with -- and in -- that process. Not only was the 1998 impeachment a powerful and necessary response to the gauntlet throw at the feet of Congress by the Clinton Administration, it was an important exercise employing a mechanism purposefully incorporated in our Constitution by our Founding Fathers.
Contrary to what most Americans remember about the impeachment of President Clinton, the beginnings of the process had nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky or the president’s sexual exploits. On November 5, 1997, I filed House Resolution 304, officially calling for an inquiry as to whether Clinton had engaged in a “systemic effort to obstruct, undermine, and compromise the legitimate and proper functions and processes of the [executive] branch.”
The Resolution was intentionally deliberative in nature. Even with evidence already in hand that the President had engaged in actions warranting impeachment, the Resolution did not call precipitously for impeachment. Rather, it called on the House Judiciary Committee to “investigate and report” whether “grounds exist to impeach” the President; and, upon conclusion of such investigation, to recommend how to proceed with the evidence uncovered.
The reason for the care with which I began this process more than 16 years ago, can be found in the Federalist Papers,penned by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Hamilton in particular devoted considerable time to explaining the importance of incorporating the impeachment process into the Constitution. To him and his co-authors, this was an essential tool with which to help ensure our system of government would work as intended; a necessary provision to show that the president was subject to the rule of law just as any other citizen.
Hamilton noted in Federalist No. 65 that the key element for consideration of impeachment is that the president has “abuse[d] or violat[ed] some public trust;” in other words, the president, as a public official, has engaged in “misconduct.” Hamilton was clear in laying out the impeachment process that it reside in the Congress, not the courts; and that it properly should be the House of Representatives that takes the first step.