Republicans Show No Sign of Taking Impeachment Seriously
A “Need to Impeach” hat sits on a table during a campaign stop with Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, not pictured, in Ankeny, Iowa, U.S. (Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Republicans Show No Sign of Taking Impeachment Seriously

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The impeachment vote in the Judiciary Committee on Friday morning went as expected — along party lines — but the final procedural spat was instructive. 

The vote was expected Thursday evening, but Chair Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, abruptly recessed the committee at 11 p.m. Eastern time following hours of debate about Republican amendments that had no chance of passing. That angered Republicans who hadn’t been informed of the change in schedule, but it won’t move the impeachment debate one way or another. 

What were Republicans hoping to achieve by extending the committee debate? Perhaps they sought to claim that nefarious Democrats had taken a midnight vote (a talking point they used against the Affordable Care Act back in 2010, even though that vote had been in the late morning). Perhaps they just wanted to keep people from watching the final vote itself. Or maybe they just wanted to milk their time on national television. But it sure doesn’t seem like they were searching for a meaningful way — outside of impeachment or the articles proposed by Democrats — to send President Donald Trump a message on using the powers of his office for personal political gain. 

And what was the difference between an evening vote and a morning one anyway? Americans are not going to be more impressed by the gravity or magnitude of impeachment because of  the timing of the committee’s final decision. At the same time, the midnight-vote talking point would have given Republicans something to say on Fox News, but there are approximately zero people whose votes would be changed. There’s always something that the minority party can complain about, whether justified or not, that will sound impressive to the party’s strongest supporters. 

It’s surprisingly easy to get bogged down in the nonsense of the moment when this is what’s actually happening: the impeachment of the president, and a struggle over the power of the presidency and of the Congress, over the integrity of elections in the United States, and over the Constitution and the republic. 

We’re almost certainly heading for a party-line vote in the House with only a handful of defections, and there’s every reason to believe the Senate trial will yield similar results. But there are some unanswered questions that could prove quite important in the long term.

Will Trump, and will future presidents, be more restrained because even impeachment and acquittal is still a sufficient punishment? Or will it backfire? Will Trump believe, if he is not removed, that pressuring a foreign nation to help his re-election bid and then stiff-arming Congress when they investigate it now has a seal of approval? We don’t know. Nor do we really know how the specifics of the Senate trial — whether witnesses are called, what the final vote is — will matter. And we don’t know how impeachment and acquittal compares as a deterrent to other alternatives the House could have taken, such as a censure vote or just oversight hearings without the threat of removing Trump from office. 

That’s looking at the situation as if House Democrats were the key players. They certainly had the choice over impeachment. But Republicans are really the more important actors here. They had the choice — they still have the choice — to act on behalf of Congress and on behalf of the Constitution, even with all the risks they would take on by doing so. That doesn’t necessarily mean voting to remove a Republican president, but it at least means finding some way to make it clear that his actions are not acceptable and cannot continue. Democrats in 1998 opposed impeachment, but their support of a censure alternative (even if it never happened) made it clear to Bill Clinton that there were limits to what they would tolerate. Yes, we can explain the incentives that make Republicans likely to stick with a same-party president regardless of the situation, but that doesn’t absolve them from their responsibilities. 

There’s nothing wrong with normal congressional shenanigans, even in an extremely serious situation, as long as members of Congress also get around to doing the serious portion of the work as well. So far, we’re not seeing that from the Republican side of the aisle. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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