The Impeachment Imbroglio: Sheehan, Conyers, Pelosi, and Feingold

The blogosphere was aquiver with the news that Cindy Sheehan announced she will challenge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as an independent, since Pelosi has refused to renounce her position that impeachment is "off the table." Sheehan promptly got herself arrested in the office of Congressman John Conyers, who heads the House Judiciary Committee.

"The Democrats will not hold this administration accountable, so we have to hold the Democrats accountable," Sheehan said. She and a group of other pro-impeachment activists were arrested in Conyers's office after a meeting at which Conyers told the activists that he lacked the votes for impeachment. Sheehan's group began a sit-in, demanding that Conyers sign onto Representative Dennis Kucinich's impeachment bill. Conyers eventually called the Capitol Police to arrest the protesters and drag them away.

The group and the political newsletter Counterpunch attacked Conyers for hypocrisy. Sheehan expressed disgust and dismay. A fight broke out between supporters of the Democrats and leftwing activists online.

I asked John Nichols, whose book The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism recently hit number 17 on Amazon, what he made of the whole Sheehan/Conyers imbroglio.

The internal strife on the left probably doesn't make much difference to the chances for impeachment, he says. That's because, Nichols explains, no one leader in the House can make impeachment happen.

"John Conyers wants to impeach, there's no question of that. He wrote a book on it last year. He moved the proposal to set up a special committee to do it. But Pelosi has made it clear she doesn't want to do it," Nichols says.

"We're exactly where we've been all along, which is this process is going to have to go member by member, getting them to sign on. John Conyers would be absolutely delighted if he were forced to take up impeachment."

The notion that John Conyers or Nancy Pelosi can make impeachment happen is mistaken, Nichols says. "The way Jefferson and Madison set it up, it's supposed to be an organic process--it comes from people slowly convincing individual members to step up."

To date, some 15 members have signed on to the proposal to impeach Cheney, and 20 have spoken out in favor of impeachment generally. It would take 50 to pose a real threat. But as more and more voters and their representatives take an interest, the chances for impeachment grow.

The day before the Sheehan/Conyers imbroglio, Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, renewed his call of a year ago to censure the President. (Only a House member, not a Senator, can begin the impeachment process.) In 2006, Feingold called for censure because of revelations about the Administration's illegal wiretapping program, and the cover-up that ensued. His current pair of resolutions, which he announced on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert on Sunday, would cite the Administration's continuing misleading statements on the Iraq War and what Feingold calls Bush's "attack on the rule of law" and the U.S. Constitution, as well as the use of torture.

A little later, on CBS's Face the Nation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said he wouldn't be joining the censure drive. Echoing the White House response to the censure effort, Reid cited all the other work the Senate needs to do, adding: "He's the worst President in history. I don't think we need a censure resolution to prove that."

Russert hit on the same theme, suggesting that Feingold's censure resolution is "political" (i.e., a bunch of useless posturing). And even Feingold himself nodded to the "let's-not-waste-time-and-energy" defensive posture struck by the Democrats ever since they won back Congress in the midterm elections. "We don't need to tie up the House and Senate with an impeachment trial" to take the lesser step of censure, he said, though he also didn't rule out impeachment.

On his website, Feingold directs constituents to a blog he wrote on the subject for Daily Kos, in which he explains that he is not convinced impeachment is the way to go, even though "the list of administration wrongdoing, misleading statements, and out and out lies, just keeps getting longer. Congress should censure the President not only for the illegal wiretapping program, but for the administration's phony reasons for going to war in Iraq, for trashing habeas corpus, for giving the green light to torture, and the list goes on and on. I want Congress to condemn what the administration has done, both for the American people, and for history."

He asks for support from the pro-impeachment netroots: "I know some of you may not believe these resolutions are enough, and I understand that. I am as frustrated as you are about this administration's actions and I hope the proposal I made today is something you'll consider helping me with (in addition to other efforts you may support). Together we will hold this administration accountable for its many abuses. The history books will show we were vocal in condemning the President's abuses of power."

While Democrats give voice to public discontent with the Bush administration, the leadership is still operating on the theory that as Bush and the Republicans head off the cliff, the best course of action is to get out of the way. Politically, Nichols concedes, they might be right: "They should just stand up and say if we abdicate our constitutional responsibilities and don't do our job, we'll reap the benefits. It will allow us to do good things. They might be right. Standing by and letting a crash occur might benefit you. That's a credible case."

Of course, the Democrats are saying no such thing. Instead, they talk about getting on with the important business of the Congress, and not wasting time on impeachment. The argument that impeachment would be a time-waster is, according to Nichols, "bullshit." He points out that the same Congress that impeached Richard Nixon accomplished a great deal, in terms of dialing down the Vietnam war, raising the minimum wage, passing environmental legislation, and making other important, progressive gains.

"The idea that taking up impeachment will keep us from acting on health care, gay rights, etc., is ahistoric," Nichols says. "The fact of the matter is that during the impeachment of Nixon back in the 70s, the reason Congress was so effective and got so much done was that Nixon was scared and, in a calculated move, started cooperating with Congress to avoid impeachment. So the right thing to do is move immediately--see what you can get out of Bush."

For that theory to win the day, the pressure on Congress from voters has to continue to grow.

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