What comes next in the impeachment inquiry?
Matt Glassman | October 3, 2019
Last week, following a whistleblower complaint about certain foreign affairs actions taken by the White House, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the House was beginning an “official impeachment inquiry” into President Trump. Pelosi directed six House committees to put together their case for potential impeachment and forward them to the Judiciary Committee, which would then make a recommendation to the full House.
While Pelosi described these actions as an “official impeachment inquiry,” the current path forward is somewhat less formal than past presidential impeachment investigations. For example, the Clinton impeachment process included a floor vote on a resolution authorizing and directing the Judiciary Committee to investigate a potential impeachment.
Pelosi’s informal direction of the committees may reflect the continued hesitancy about impeachment from some moderate Democrats who represent districts won by Trump in 2016; Democrats may want to avoid a vote that either shows party division or forces swing-district members to take an uncomfortable vote in favor of the inquiry.
Pelosi has tapped the Intelligence Committee, chaired by Adam Schiff, to take the lead on the impeachment inquiry. This reflects her concerns about her moderates, given that the committee’s membership is more moderate than the liberal Democrats on the Judiciary committee, and that such an inquiry would more narrowly focus on Ukraine and national security issues. Schiff is seen as having the right professional tone by Democrats, and the Judiciary committee has had a broader scope of inquiry that has both includes topics (e.g. hush money to women) and proceedings (e.g. Lewandowski) some see as less serious.
So what happens next? There are several ways for an impeachment resolution to reach the House floor, but the most likely path is this: if the Judiciary Committee votes to report articles of impeachment, the Rules Committee would report a special rule structuring floor debate and procedures for consideration. Like ordinary legislation, the chamber would adopt these rules and proceed to consider the Articles of Impeachment, likely finishing by taking individual votes on each Article.
If any of the Articles are adopted by the House, the president is impeached. Those articles are then forwarded to the Senate for a potential trial. There is no constitutional requirement that the Senate consider the House-passed Articles of Impeachment, but current Senate rules require the Articles to be taken up by the Senate. If a majority of the Senate does not wish to conduct a full-length trial that ends in a vote to convict or acquit, they could alter current Senate rules, or pass a resolution allowing for a motion to dismiss during the trial.
While observers are drawing a number of similarities between the current impeachment inquiry and past presidential impeachments, there are also important unique features of the current political dynamics. Most noticeably, all previous presidential impeachment inquiries have come when the opposition party controlled both chambers of Congress. Currently, the Senate is controlled by the party of the president. Consequently, those defending the president may not only get to set the terms of an impeachment trial, but also will have the formal tools of the Senate committee system and floor available to structure formal impeachment-related resolutions or counter-inquiries.
Second, this is the first presidential impeachment inquiry to occur with a president running for reelection. Presidents Nixon and Clinton were second-term presidents in the post-22nd amendment era, barred from running for re-election in 1976 and 2000, respectively. Andrew Johnson was eligible for the 1868 election, but never a serious consideration by either party. With President Trump the presumptive Republican nominee for 2020, political strategy surrounding impeachment may reflect electoral concerns more directly than in the past. For example, any Articles of Impeachment adopted by the House may focus more on the President’s fitness for office than on the gravity of his past wrongdoing.
Impeachment is a thoroughly political process, and right now there’s no clear answer to the question of what will ultimately result from the inquiry. The important political actors to watch over the coming weeks and months are moderate House Democrats, moderate House Republicans, and moderate Senate Republicans. If any of these groups begin to shift their positions strongly in either direction, that’s a clear indication that the probability of different outcomes—no impeachment, party-line impeachment in the House followed by party-line acquittal in the Senate, and impeachment followed by conviction and removal—are also shifting.