Congress Needs to Step Up

(The Bloomberg View) -- The U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to impeach the president for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The threshold for congressional action is inexact, and Republicans, who control both sides of Congress, aren’t eager to locate it anytime soon.

Still, that threshold is closer than it was before Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s long-time personal lawyer, confessed in federal court to multiple felonies, including campaign finance violations that he said he committed in 2016 at Trump’s direction.

It’s hardly a surprise that Republicans wish to avoid confronting a new round of unseemly revelations about the president. Evasion has been their default since before Trump was elected. But the stakes keep getting higher.

Rather than wait for more felonious shoes to drop, Republicans would better serve the country and themselves by taking action. Between impeaching an errant president and making increasingly implausible excuses for him lies a vast political terrain that, to date, remains stubbornly unexplored by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

The most obvious need is for public hearings to arrest the sprawl of corruption across the executive branch. Such hearings, conducted soberly and honestly, might well lower the volume on calls for impeachment. With Congress exercising its proper oversight role, the public would have greater confidence that executive-branch chaos, and corruption, is being checked.  

Second, Congress should pass the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act, which would inhibit Trump’s ability to fire Robert Mueller. The special counsel could still be removed for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest or other good cause. But his job would be insulated from termination via rage tweet.

Finally, Republican leaders must rise above the political cowardice that has been the hallmark of this Congress. McConnell offered no thoughts on the president being implicated in a felony. The office of Speaker of the House said “more information” was required before Ryan could make a declarative statement. Not surprisingly, the president’s recent derision of the federal justice system — “It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal,” he said of the Cohen plea bargain — was met with silence, not rebuke.

The Founders envisioned Congress as a den of lions, not frightened lambs.

If the remainder of Mueller’s investigation proves mundane, the cloud of impeachment will disperse. Yet Congress still must assert itself. A presidency that is historically weak and distracted requires an especially strong and focused legislative branch to keep watch. In reclaiming its purpose, Congress will also be better prepared to address whatever might come next.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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