THE HOUSE of Representatives has taken a profound step toward weakening U.S. institutions, the presidency and democracy.
As a call to remove the president from office, impeachment seeks to nullify the informed decision of the voters. It plunges the Senate into a trial. As a result, the normal operation of government will grind to a halt; vital issues will be left unaddressed.
Impeachment is a solemn and necessary power provided to the House of Representatives. It is the nation's ultimate remedy for the tendency of power to corrupt and for the holders to use power to usurp more.
In prescribing impeachment for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors, the Constitution upholds the integrity of institutions and protects itself from subversion. In setting high threshold for impeachment and in denying Congress any power to punish, the Constitution recognizes the dangers of political passion and vindictiveness.
President Clinton's behavior -- however reckless and immoral -- does not qualify for the constitutional definition of high crimes and misdemeanors as the Framers intended or as the words have been understood for two centuries.
The House of Representatives does have the right to reinterpret the Constitution for modern times, to lower the bar to impeachment and to trivialize the crimes that qualify. But in doing so, a permanent change is wrought.
Even if the Senate refuses to convict, which most House members apparently count on, institutions are weakened and the will of the voters is disrespected.
Whatever the outcome in the Senate, more frivolous attempts at impeachment must be expected. More attempts at payback. More hunts through personal lives. More perjury traps. A lower tone of political debate.
Voting to bring this about, whether out of conscience or something else, required courage. The likelihood of popular revulsion against the vote was evident.
Revulsion would be based on patriotism during military action, on the hypocrisy of confessed adulterers proclaiming a moral crusade and on voters' recollections of other examples of lying in high places.
Retribution by the voters in November 2000 seems not unlikely. But the nation is stuck with the result, anyway, and its political stability is diminished.
Pub Date: 12/20/98