The Year of Impeachment
State senators go head-to-head on whether our president should keep his job
March 20, 2007, marks the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War, and within these last few years, much has changed. Our country has been introduced to wiretapping, reacquainted with torture and has come to feel, overwhelmingly, that we have been lied to. Some argue that because of these things we are safer. Perhaps we are, but if that is so, it is at a cost, a cost we cannot fully calculate.
In four years time, 3,193 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq (as of March 11), more than two a day. The number of people who have died, however, is a figure in which no one seems capable of agreement. Estimates of Iraqi deaths vary widely, between 60,000 and 655,000, between 41 a day and 448 a day.
Something else that has changed over the last four years is the American public’s view of our president, who now garners some of the lowest approval ratings of any president in the history of the United States. As a result of George W. Bush’s behavior, some states, including our own, have introduced impeachment resolutions, asking Congress to investigate whether or not our president should be put on trial. The resolution in New Mexico, Senate Joint Resolution 5, has elicited controversy in the State Legislature, with some calling it necessary and others labeling it improper and a waste of time.
On Thursday, March 8, SJR5 died in the State Senate, leaving many of its advocates feeling slighted as time to discuss the bill was cut short (for further details, read “The Real Side” this week in the news section). Yet despite the resolution’s demise, or perhaps because of it, discussion on the possibility of state-requested impeachment is crucial. New Mexico was only one of several states asking the United States Congress to consider the president’s impeachment, and in some of those states the resolution is still alive.
Therefore, in recognition of the Iraq War’s fourth anniversary and the mounting public discourse on impeachment, we asked two senators, Jerry Ortiz y Pino, co-sponsor of the resolution and an Alibi columnist, and Rod Adair, to write about their stances on the bill that failed.
Squash the Silence
Why the Impeachment Resolution is worth our time
As one of the two primary sponsors of a State Legislative Resolution calling for Congress to begin an investigation into the possible impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, I’d like to explain why this step is far more than a symbolic gesture.
From the day that Sen. John Grubesic (D, Santa Fe) and I first introduced Senate Joint Resolution 5, we have had to contend with four major objections to it:
1) This is meaningless, merely a bid for publicity or notoriety, not something a busy Legislative Session ought to waste time on when so many more pressing issues confront the poorest state in the country.
2) The Democrats in Congress have already shown a total lack of interest in pursuing impeachment proceedings, clearly stating that they were “taking it off the table” supposedly because there is little chance for success when 66 votes would be needed in the U.S. Senate and there are only 51 Democrats there.
3) Bush is bumbling, incompetent, possibly the worst president in history … but he isn’t criminal; his mistakes are due to ignorance or ineptitude, not a deliberate plot aimed at undermining the Constitution.
4) Less than two years remain for this administration. Why tie up a Congress working feverishly to get the country back on course with a time-consuming, divisive and potentially futile crusade when the clock is likely to run out on Bush and Cheney before the investigation would reach a conclusion?
Notice I don’t list the “hey, he’s doing a helluva job and we’re sticking with him all the way” objection because so far I haven’t heard a single Republican in our Legislature advance that viewpoint, no matter how often it might get voiced on Fox News.
Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzmann of New York agreed to take part in a video conference with us last week to provide her responses to each of those questions. Her answers during that conference are my primary source in this essay.
Her analysis is more than that of a casual observer. As she puts it, she has developed something of a “niche expertise” about presidential impeachment stemming from her participation on the House panel that investigated Richard Nixon back in the mid-'70s.
He resigned before the Senate could act, but she learned firsthand the intricacies of the process, a process she says is vitally important in protecting our form of government.
When Bill Clinton was being impeached in the late ’90s, she served as an advisor to his defense team. Now she has authored a book, The Impeachment of George W. Bush, which is becoming a frequently quoted reference on the question.
Holtzmann has also provided testimony to the Washington State Legislature which is currently debating its own version of SJR 5 (as are several others besides our own). So her conclusion is firm: It is, without a doubt, constitutionally sound activity for a State Legislature to petition Congress to set the impeachment process in motion.
She is equally clear about the fact that to find that “high crimes and misdemeanors” have occurred does not require proof of criminal activity. That is the phrase used to describe behavior by elected officials which tears down constitutional protections or which ignores bedrock principles of our democracy and which therefore merits impeachment.
Finally, she is also unequivocal about the issue of the timing of an impeachment investigation. It doesn’t matter, she says, that these guys will be out of office one way or another in just 20 months.
The purpose of the impeachment is not to run the rascals out of town on a rail; it’s to serve as a powerful reminder to the people and to the next administration of the reality that when we elect our presidents we intend to hold them accountable. In this country, we do not crown kings or emperors who serve at God’s appointment and whose judgments must go unquestioned … or simply endured.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that Congressional Democrats are as wary of impeachment as Congressional Republicans. After all, once this “accountable to the people” thing gets underway, there’s no telling how far it will roll. It certainly is not business as usual for the inside-the-Beltway crowd, and that makes them very uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, no matter how resistant they might be, according to the rules first established by Thomas Jefferson 200 years ago, once a state legislature adopts a resolution calling for impeachment to get going, there has to be a debate on it in the House of Representatives.
We list four serious reasons in our resolution for asking Congress to open an investigation. We don’t demand impeachment based on our allegations; we demand an investigation into them … an investigation which could produce an impeachment.
In effect, we are saying there’s so much smoke pouring out of the White House, someone ought to darn well take a look at the possibility of a fire.
Listen to these four charges and then you decide if they don’t cry out for action:
1) Bush and Cheney deliberately misled the American people to get us to agree to invade Iraq.
2) Bush and Cheney have, under the guise of fighting “terror,” deliberately violated the Bill of Rights, especially by authorizing surveillance by wiretap without bothering with the established legal niceties.
3) Bush and Cheney have, in blatant disregard for the Geneva Conventions or American tradition, authorized torture of political prisoners. Our government. Torture. Unbelievable.
4) Bush and Cheney have without justification done away with habeas corpus and are holding hundreds of persons without charges and without usual Constitutional protections in American prisons here and in Cuba, some for as long as four years.
Any one of those charges ought to have forced Congress to act long ago. But they haven’t, so we at the state legislative level have to jump in and prod them into action.
We have to because we know what has been going on. If we avert our eyes; if we stand by silently while this bunch propels us into yet another war, this one with Iran; if we don’t even try to stop them, then we are complicit in their awful deeds.
Going the Wrong Way
Why the Impeachment Resolution is a waste of our time
It is alleged that having the New Mexico Legislature weigh in regarding impeachment of both the president and vice-president of the United States is an issue of prime importance to the people of New Mexico. I don't believe this to be the case.
When we first heard that this issue would be presented in this Legislative Session, I expected some kind of new information would be forthcoming, that some serious academic investigation had taken place revealing high crimes and misdemeanors previously unknown. Senate Joint Resolution 5, however, provided nothing new—nothing beyond the typical Michael Moore- or George Soros-styled attacks we have heard for the past five years.
Some might say, "Let it go, it's harmless, don't worry about it." After all, it at least serves as a cathartic or a kind of release of tension for the most rabid of the Bush haters. That, in and of itself, the thinking goes, serves its own purpose. While I understand that point of view—providing for a kind of a paean to the hard left and the demagogues—I can't accept that indulging this kind of thing is ultimately harmless. In fact, it is very detrimental, not just to the commonweal, but in the signal it sends to so many in America, especially our young people and, of course, to those abroad.
I am old enough to remember Hubert H. Humphrey, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mike Mansfield and other liberal Democrats from my youth and young adulthood. These men, and like-minded women as well, were strong advocates for the liberal Democrat platform, especially on matters of domestic policy. They were mature, intelligent and, especially in the case of Moynihan, serious intellects. They had read widely, thought deeply and reflected seriously about public policy. For them, disagreement with their ideological or partisan counterparts did not translate to contempt, let alone hate. Those kinds of men (and women) of the left are still around in America, but they tend to be aging, and those who aren't, unfortunately, are not in the ascendancy in the ranks of the Democratic Party.
It is a commonplace to say that the founders were wise, but I'll say it anyway. They knew that impeachment must be reserved for crimes, not for policy differences. Here in New Mexico we have a recall provision in our constitution, but we were thoughtful enough to allow it to be invoked only for malfeasance or misfeasance—in other words, for actions that constitute crimes or near crimes. Voters who have sought to recall county commissioners in New Mexico have had their petitions for recall election rejected by courts because the petitions only listed policy differences that the petitioners didn't like. Judges have correctly pointed out that if we allowed recall elections based on public policy disputes we would have recall petitions every single day. The same holds for impeachment proceedings. Many from the center right coalition may have wished to impeach Clinton for his early efforts to create a national single-payer health care system, and many left-wingers may have wanted to impeach him for welfare reform. But both would have been wrong-headed. Policy direction for American government is determined through elections, not through impeachment. If we don't like public policy choices made by officeholders, we concentrate on defeating them at the polls, not on charging them with crimes for holding different beliefs.
The fact that the leaders of the impeachment "mini movements" in a couple of states are smart enough to couch their resolutions in terms that make them look like indictments for "crimes" does not mask the real motivation for these activists. This becomes most obvious when speakers go off script at hearings and talk about the one public policy motivator that sets them off to start with: the war in Iraq. That's what the entire issue is based on. Everything else is filler. The Bush haters are Bush haters for the very reasons mentioned in the New Mexico Senate Judiciary Committee meeting this week: He is a friend of Israel, an opponent of Islamo-fascism and is determined to fight the terrorist menace—with or without support from France, Germany or anyone else deemed to be necessary for us to convince.
Of course the policy choices are going to be presented as "crimes." The Bush haters hate the fact he chose to invade Iraq, remove Saddam Hussein and allow a framework for democracy that millions of Iraqis chose to support with their votes. But the decision—which was agreed to by scores of Democratic members of Congress, including most of the leaders—must be described as "deliberately misled," so as to make it sound "criminal." The methods approved for protecting our people by intercepting communications with Al-Qaeda must be described as "unauthorized surveillance" under the "guise of fighting terror," even though the intercepts are authorized under the Patriot Act, which Democrats overwhelmingly supported.
Similarly, charges about "torture" and "violations of habeas corpus" are thrown around as casually as if the words mean almost nothing. Witnesses in committee hearings claim we live in a "totalitarian" society that uses "police state" methods of governance. Well, if we were in fact "totalitarian" we would in fact have a "police state." But then, we wouldn't exactly have open meetings where people show up to present harebrained resolutions calling for the removal of the president, and while they're at it, freely express whatever pops into their minds—before blithely returning to the themes of what an awful totalitarian society they live in.
No, I've lived through it all before. It's just that there weren't quite as many people on the far left in 1984, and they didn't provide the entire source of energy and inspiration for the national Democratic Party then. But they were numerable, and they were important. They were for the "Nuclear Freeze" then, saying Ronald Reagan was an "idiot" and that the United States could never hope to defeat the Soviet Union (remember it?) in the Cold War. With any encouragement at all they could possibly have introduced resolutions of impeachment, in Santa Fe, against President Reagan—especially since his tax cuts didn't have concomitant spending cuts and, well, you know, that's just bad public policy. They also could have indicted him for the Beirut bombing, as well as for the invasion of Grenada. They almost got the idea to do it for aid to the Contras, but never got around to it. You get the idea. The American left was wrong then, and it is wrong now.
The tendency toward a polarizing expression of political ideology on the part of the far left is perhaps the biggest single change in American politics over the past 20 years. It isn't a pretty one. Nor is it healthy for our system. As was the case in the ’80s, wiser heads will prevail now as well.
It is likely that the voices on the far left will grow stronger, perhaps helping goad America into a sharp change in policy in 2008 and perhaps a short year or two after that. They will accomplish this, if they do so, through campaigns and elections, not through impeachment. If we are fortunate, and blessed, it won't last long. The forces arrayed against us are formidable and determined. They plan on playing for keeps. Our freedom, perhaps our very existence is at stake. The left has no answer for this. Unfortunately, they don't even see the problem.