Should President Bush be impeached? The very idea seems extreme, if not loony.
Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has explicitly ruled impeachment off the Democratic majority's agenda. But activists and legal scholars are organizing to pressure Democrats to begin impeachment hearings. And the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has issued two remarkable studies on abuses of presidential authority, raising the question of impeachable offenses.
The Newt Gingrich Congress' attempt to railroad President Bill Clinton out of office gave impeachment some bad press. It is scorned as irresponsible, vindictive, partisan spitball politics. Rather than addressing the challenges the nation faces, impeachment, many pundits argue, wastes months on harsh, divisive wrangling. And of course, in 1998, the public punished Republicans — ultimately leading to the toppling of Gingrich himself — for their relentless pursuit of Clinton.
But in the current circumstances, the question isn't merely rhetorical or partisan. While in office, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have asserted an extraordinary array of extra-constitutional powers. Bush argues that he has the right to declare war on his own. He then claims he can designate any American an "enemy combatant."
For those under that suspicion, he claims the right to wiretap their phones without warrants, arrest them without charges, detain them without lawyers, torture them without judicial review and hold them until the war ends. He also says that neither the Congress nor the pubic has any right to review his decisions or to gain access to the papers that he chooses to keep secret. Since Bush himself says the War on Terror will last for decades, the scope of this assertion is staggering.
America has suffered from this attitude. The president and his men drove us into the war of choice in Iraq, clearly distorting intelligence to gain public support and undermining our credibility across the world. His policies led directly to the global disgraces of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib — undermining America's reputation once again. His assertions have trampled the rights of American citizens, as well as those from other countries. Lack of accountability has squandered billions in taxpayer dollars on the waste, fraud and abuse of major contractors in Iraq. The list can go on.
Bush's remarkable assertions would make the president an elected king. That is surely not what the founding fathers intended. They made the revolution in revolt against the abuses of the British king and wrote the Constitution to create a system of checks and balances to limit presidential power. They gave the Congress the right to declare war, arguing that "no one man" should ever have that power in a republic.
How do we hold presidents accountable when they trample these limits? Presidents cannot be indicted. They are immune from civil lawsuits on the basis of their official actions. The only recourse in the Constitution is impeachment. And impeachment for "high crimes and misdemeanors" was put into the Constitution to hold presidents to account.
The Democratic Congress has a duty to the Constitution to investigate and challenge the president's claims to be above the law. Conyers may well put off any consideration of impeachment, but he has a duty to convene serious hearings on the scope of the president's claims, the abuses to the Constitution and to citizens resulting from them and the remedies to them.
Whether Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, everyone should support defending our Constitution. We need a careful consideration of whether the Constitution can or should be changed in the light of the threats we now face. If it is to be changed, then surely it should be changed by amendment, not by the unilateral acts of a president. If changes are not needed, then Bush's claims must be clearly rejected.
What if the president and his administration refuse to cooperate with the Congress in this inquiry? What if they deny access to all documents, refuse to testify, issue "signing statements" stating that the president will not abide by the laws the Congress passes? Then the Constitution offers only two options: Vote the president out of office (although Bush is due to depart in 2009), or impeach the president for high crimes and misdemeanors. In my own view, it should not come to that – but Congress must act to defend the Constitution before America turns completely into an elected dictatorship.
Jesse Jackson is president and founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and a long-time civil rights activist.