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What Are the Chances of Impeaching Nixon?
May 3, 1973
WASHINGTON, D. C. — In medieval law, it was a crime to think the king guilty of a crime. That law doesn’t apply here, but among prominent congressional politicians it might as well. Speculation about the President’s personal involvement in Watergate and discussion of impeachment are simply considered bad form.
Only, what happens if it turns out Nixon knew about Watergate, or worse yet, knew about the cover-up? Would those be grounds for removal from office? Does anybody seriously contemplate impeachment?
When these questions were put to several long-term congressional observers and aides, they generally turned them aside. As one of them put it, “That’s the question nobody is asking up here.”
“We all hope the guy is clean,” a Democratic aide said. “For the sake of the country, we hope he’s clean. Partisanship disappears very fast in this sort of situation. When you ask me these questions I get very nervous. It’s thinking the unthinkable.”
“No thoughtful person wants impeachment,” insisted an expert in constitutional law. “It would tear the country apart. It would do irreparable damage to the governmental system.”
“Impeachment is simply not the way to go,” emphasized a veteran politician. “Just let him go.”
“You mean, let him go even if he were shown to be obstructing justice?”
“Yes. Just let him go. You’d have a hell of a time making an indictable case out of it. You could never get a majority in the House. There’s no point to it. Let him go. People will get over it.”
Some Democrats argue that as a practical political matter it would be to their advantage to keep a ruined Nixon in office. They point out that already pro-Nixon New Majority Southerners are disassociating themselves from the President, and to demonstrate their independence, will vote against him. That will tear the ideological coalition Nixon now maintains in the House.
But others take this to be an overly cynical view. “Nobody wants the government to be paralyzed for three and a half years,” says the counsel for one large congressional committee. He has been making a private inquiry into the possibility of a suit to set aside the 1972 elections on grounds of fraud.
The large committees expect Watergate to affect legislation soon. The administration will not be able to take positions on legislation. Messages on special issues, will be delayed. Testimony at hearings will be delayed. Many of the mainstream government operations flow directly through the White House staff. Nixon’s recent re-organization made the cabinet heads all but titular, with real power held in the departments by former White House staff men sent out to gain and maintain control.
Observers in the House thought they detected the beginnings of a Watergate effect before the Easter holiday break. With Congress set to approve a continuation of the wage-price law, the White House sent a staff member to the Hill to ask that the bill be put off and re-committed. Later that afternoon, the President met with Treasury Secretary Shultz and told him to accept the bill as it was about to pass. But by the time the Treasury lobbyists got to the Capitol, it was too late, and taking the advice of the White House lobbyist, the bill had been put off.
An impeachment proceeding would be a lengthy business, tying up the business of Congress for weeks or months. Charges would first have to be brought on the House floor. They might be brought by members, a grand jury, by states, or citizens’ petitions. The matter probably would be referred to committee for consideration, in all likelihood the Judiciary committee. If the committee wanted to proceed it would probably report out a resolution to appoint a special committee to consider whether or not there should be impeachment proceedings. That special committee might well get involved in lengthy investigations. If it did develop the articles of impeachment — in effect an indictment — and the House voted for it by majority, then the Senate would hear the case.
There is a remote argument that the President also could be removed under the 25th Amendment. It sets procedures in instances where a President is unable to discharge the powers of his office. The framers of the amendment pretty clearly set forth in the legislative history that the amendment was to be used in case of physical inability. Yet Sections 3 and 4 offer dangerous temptations, at least in the eyes of some constitutional observers. Section 3 says, “If the President declares in writing that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice-President as Acting President.” And Section 4: “If the President does not so declare, and the Vice-President with the written concurrence of a majority of the heads of the executive departments or such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmits to the Congress his written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice-President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”
Congressional experts fear Section 4 could lead to a “Thieu-Ky” situation, with the Vice-President forming a coalition with the cabinet against the President.
Congressional insiders, who normally leave thoughts of impeachment to the likes of Bella Abzug, are sneaking sidelong glances at dusty common law precedents. But to most, opening that Pandora’s box is even more horrifying than four more years.