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Political Parties and Impeachment

Political parties impeach for political gain. By analyzing the constitutional provisions for impeachment and the character of several past impeachments, it can be seen that this is often the case. The nature of parties concurs with the actions they exhibit because they use their functions and powers to enact their cause. The two-party system helps their cause while party weakness hurts them. Impeachment is an apt symbol of the power struggle between Congress and the President. It is a political action that many not necessarily be good for the nation. Before these conclusions can be made, the details of impeachment must first be discussed.

Impeachment at the federal level is basically like a courtroom conviction in the sense that when a person is impeached, that person has been convicted of wrongdoing. The criminal charges are generally stated in the articles of impeachment. The House decides on impeachment while the Senate tries the impeachment. The Congressional Quarterly issue, "Impeachment and the U.S. Congress," describes the power well.

"Impeachment is perhaps the most awesome though the least used power of Congress. In essence, it is a political action, couched in legal terminology, directed against a ranking official of the federal government. The House of Representatives is the prosecutor. The Senate chamber is the courtroom; and the Senate is the judge and jury. The final penalty is removal from office and possible disqualification from further office. There is no appeal."

The Constitution, in Articles I and II, gives the broad outline of where the powers are vested and when they may be used. Each chamber of Congress has the authority to set up rules within these broad constraints. (Lecture) According to the Quarterly, the impeachment process was originally heavily debated and caused quite a controversy. Nevertheless, since the precedents have been laid down, it has been less of an issue. The definition of impeachable crimes, although originally a lesser issue, has become a major topic of contention in recent impeachments. This stems from the fact that the definition is shrouded in ambiguity. After several revisions, the founders decided in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, that impeachment crimes consisted of "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

The quarterly also gives information about the history of impeachment. Between 1789 and 1974, thirteen officers were impeached by the House. Of these, the most sensational two were the impeachment of Justice Samuel Chase of the Supreme Court in 1805 and President Andrew Johnson in 1868. The House impeached both of these powerful political figures-"Chase for partisan conduct on the bench; Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act. ... Behind both impeachments lay intensely partisan politics." Recently, we have seen the highly publicized impeachment of President William Clinton, which was also decided along party lines.

In the impeachment of Justice Samuel Chase, the parties were able to exploit the ambiguity in the question of impeachable offenses to further their causes. The evidence for this comes from several facts as given in the Quarterly. First of all, the two sides were the Jeffersonian Republicans, who wanted to impeach, and the Federalists, who didn't. (Brittanica) The Republicans, taking the broad constructionist viewpoint, argued that impeachment should be viewed as a political weapon. This could be called the founder's intent interpretation because "the constitutional debates seemed to indicate [this viewpoint of impeachment]." On the other side, the Federalists used the narrow constructionist viewpoint that impeachment should be limited to offenses indictable at common law; this could be called the plain meaning interpretation. They argued that Chase was being tried for partisan conduct on the bench, which was not indictable. Both arguments are legitimate interpretations of the Constitution that could influence a person's decision. (Lecture) This dual legitimacy gave a line to the parties across which they could take sides to further their own political agendas.

The impeachment of President Johnson was a case that clearly depicts how the underlying motives of partisan politics play out in impeachment. This can be understood by looking at the historical events surrounding the impeachment described in the paper "Andrew who?", by Donald Shaffer. The Civil War was coming to a close as Johnson took office and the nation was trying to decide the status of the post-war South. Johnson favored leniency and the rapid re-integration of Southern society. He was opposed by the Radical Republicans who wanted fundamental reforms enacted, including African American suffrage. Johnson would not budge on this issue and used the power of the executive branch to force his way.

As Shaffer points out, Johnson's intransigence formed the the political motivation for Radicals to seek impeachment. Johnson and the Radicals participated in a power play in which the Radicals, who now controlled Congress, passed the Tenure of Office Act to keep Johnson from evicting their supporters in the executive branch. To challenge the law, Johson fired Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War and a Radical supporter. While previous motions to impeach had failed, now Congress had a legitimate reason to impeach Johson-and they did-strictly along party lines. It is important to note that the political party, the Radicals, were seeking impeachment for political reasons. In addition, they would use any excuse to do it as evidenced by their two previous failed attempts to impeach on lesser grounds. In any case, Johnson failed to be removed by one vote mainly because enough Senate Republicans "feared that removing a president over what was essentially a policy disagreement would set a dangerous precedent for the future. This fear is also evident in Clinton's impeachment.

In fact, Clinton's impeachment has many parallels with Johnson's impeachment. Again, Shaffer points this out by describing the motivations of the political parties. He says, "Similarly [to Johnson], Bill Clinton has jousted for most of his presidency, but especially since 1994, with the Republican Right." The Republicans, after gaining control of Congress in the historic election of 1994, presented their "Contract with America". This was a far reaching plan to enact the goals of the Republican party and it clashed with the Democrats vision of the federal government. Clinton has been able to frustrate the Republican by being very successful at blocking their agenda. Shaffer sums up the parallels by saying, "Hence, believing that the president in question was unsuited to be in office and as an effective opponent of their agenda, the drumbeat for impeachment began among the frustrated Republican extremists in both the 1860s and 1990s."

As can be seen from these three cases of impeachment, political parties can play a very important role. The role that they play is one of impeaching a President to get their own way. The structure of parties naturally fits in with this role. A party is defined as a coalition of people who seek to control government by contesting elections and winning office (Lecture). The members of a party in Congress also seek to control government by legislation. Thus, if by impeaching a disagreable president the party can further control government, they will do so. Kay Lawson, in her article on parties, explains this best when she says, "Parties are organizations for acquiring control over powerful offices of government, and they act accordingly."(Cigler, p. 182) Analyzing the other functions of a party will reveal more evidence to support this role.

Political parties serve many functions to organize political life as described in A New American Democracy. These functions are developing governmental talent, simplifying the electoral system by conveying information to the electorate, organizing and operating the government, focusing responsibility for government action, developing issues and educating the public, and aggregrating diverse interests. These are mainly administrative tasks that do not deal directly with impeachment. However, viewed in the light of political motives, we can see how each function can be used to further a parties cause. For example, take the function of aggregrating diverse interests. A party could unite anyone who has any contention at all with a person and thereby gain enough power to impeach that person. The remaining functions could be viewed in a similar way. Another aid that helps the parties to strengthen their power through their functions is the two-party system.

The two-party system makes it much easier for a party to concentrate enough power to get a successful impeachment vote. As described in the lecture notes, the two party system is favored in the American system mainly because of the rules for voting. Elections are decided by Single-Member Plurality in which the winner gets the office. Hence, there are n+1 candidates who vie for n positions. Since there is one position available in each election, there are two candidates and hence two parties. Ignoring the case of a one-party system, suppose there are more than two parties. Impeachment decisions call for at least a majority. If there were more than two parties of similar sizes, then the parties would have to coordinate motives across several parties as well as within themselves. This would obviously require more effort. Therefore, the two-party system, where a majority can be relatively easily gained, helps a party to impeach a person. Though this helps a party, party weakness can hinder it.

Weak parties have a harder time impeaching than strong ones. This can be seen by analyzing what is meant by party strength. According to the lecture notes, the characteristics of a strong party include being able to create explicit platforms, nominate loyal candidates, have elected officials carry out the platforms, and have voters vote according to the platforms. American parties do not have these strengths because they cannot control nominations, they have no central party leader, and they have no mechanism for punishing renegade partisans. These weaknesses have been brought about over time through organizational changes such as civil service reform and societal changes such as fewer volunteering. All in all, the weaknesses hurt a party's ability to impeach because a weak party will have trouble carrying out its wishes. Despite this weakness, parties still have their enumerated powers in the Constitution.

The President also power and impeachment signifies well the power struggle between Congress and the President. This is evident from the historical impeachment cases as described above. The president's power comes from his ability to persuade, i.e. convince others that what he wants is in their best interest (Lecture). Particularly, he must pursuade Congress. In Johnson's case, his unwillingness to compromise sapped his persuasive strength and resulted in Congress having more power. In Clinton's case, instead of persuading his opponents, he frustrated his opponents by using his adept political skill to get his way. Congress's power vis--vis the President is vested by the Constitution mainly in the power to veto legislation and the power to impeach. The parties, when faced with a power challenge from the President, will use their powers to the maximum extent because of their intrinsic nature. Therefore, we see impeachment signifying the power struggle between the President and Congress.

The partisan nature of the impeachments cited shows that it is the parties in Congress who are running the show. If the decision to impeach had been non-political, then there would have been more diversity of viewpoints amongst the parties. In fact, asking the members of Congress would have been akin to random sampling, in which the pollsters have no affiliation or common motives (Lecture). Instead of dividing along the party lines, the votes would have been evenly distributed throughout the parties. Notably, the the quote from the Quarterly given earlier describes impeachment as a 'political action.' Since it is a political action, it deals with the conflict over the allocation of resources and values (Lecture) and who better to demand this action than a political party, whose function is to support one or another allocation. A political action, however, does not always correspond to a correct action.

As seen in the impeachment cases, a reason why those people were not impeached was because it would have set a precedent for Congress to impeach based solely on political motives. Obviously, those dissenters saw something wrong with setting such a precedent. The error is that political motives are not always good motives. "Parties often put their own electoral welfare over the good of the nation." (Fiorina, p. 237) This is because "those who organize and operate parties are motivated primarily by the desire to achieve their own political ends." (Fiorina, p. 236) Because party members balance party loyalty against their own convictions as well as constituency and interest group pressures(Fiorina, p. 421), we see again a conflict of interests between what may be the proper course of action, and what may be the politically motivated action. Thus, parties want to further their cause and will do anything within their power, even seek impeachment.

As seen from the constitution, impeachment is shrouded in ambiguity and this has been a pivot around which parties have aligned themselves in past impeachments. Where they aligned themselves has been based on political motivations that naturally occur in the party system. The American party system in particular, provides them with benefits and hindrances, but in the end, gives them the powers they need to oppose the President. However, their ends may not be best for the nation. Hence, we see that political parties often impeach based on political motivations.


Cigler, Allan and Loomis, Burdett, American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1999.

Encyclopedia Britannica Online,, topic: "Chase, Samuel."

Fastnow, Chris, Lecture notes for Political Science 111, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Winter 1999.

Fiorina, Morris and Peterson, Paul. A New American Democracy. Alternate Edition: Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1999.

"Impeachment and the U.S. Congress," The Congressional Quarterly, Inc., Washington, D.C., March 1974.

Shaffer, Donald R. "Andrew Who?: The Clinton Scandal from the Perspective of the Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson," paper presented at the Tuesday Reflection campus lecture series, SUNY Plattsburgh, Plattsburghe, N.Y., 20 October 1998.

This paper was written on April 8, 1999 for Harwood McClerking's Section 015 in Political Science 111 taught by Chris Fastnow.

Created 2004-12-16, Last Modified 2011-07-24, © Shailesh N. Humbad
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