Censure and Impeachment: Take 2
New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey is easily the most dogged critic of Vice President Dick Cheney in the House of Representatives, and Hinchey has not exactly been soft on President Bush. So it comes as no surprise that Hinchey, a passionate progressive who stood up to the Bush administration when most of the Democratic candidates to replace Bush were cowering in corners of the Capitol, is preparing to introduce House versions of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's proposals to formally condemn the Bush administration "for falsifying its justification to attack Iraq, mismanaging the subsequent military occupation, and egregiously abusing the Constitution."
Hinchey is working with Feingold to develop language for censure resolutions that the ardent critics of the administration hope will quickly attract broad support after their introduction next week.
The first resolution from Feingold and Hinchey is expected to cite Bush and Cheney for making intentionally false statements about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and for misleading Congress and the public into believing Saddam Hussein had ties to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. In addition, it will score the president and vice president for failing to plan for the occupation of Iraq, distorting the reality on the ground as it deteriorated, and overstretching the military in order to maintain the administration's mad mission in Iraq.
The second resolution is expected to suggest that Bush, Cheney and other senior administration officials have blatantly disregarded the rule of law. It will focus on the administration's illegal NSA warrantless surveillance program, its extreme policies on torture, the abusive use of presidential signing statements, the politically-motivated firings of U.S. Attorneys and the failure of the administration to cooperate with congressional inquiries.
"The American people have reached a breaking point with this administration and they are demanding that Congress step up and hold the president, vice president, and others in the executive branch responsible for their actions," says Hinchey, who has been sounding the alarm about Cheney's wrongdoing for years. "While President Bush and Vice President Cheney continue to operate as if they are leaders of a monarchy, Congress should censure them and make it clear to this and future generations that their actions are entirely unacceptable. If Congress does not act to formally admonish this White House then the future of our democracy will be placed on a slippery slope in which other presidents may point to the actions of this administration as justification for further abuses of the Constitution. Congress cannot allow such abuses of power and law, which is why Senator Feingold and I will soon introduce these censure resolutions."
Feingold, who first proposed censuring Bush more than a year ago, has struggled to gain support from fellow Democrats in the Senate for any kind of demand for presidential accountability. So he was clearly delighted by the willingness of Hinchey to step up as an ally in the House.
"Congressman Hinchey has been a strong voice in opposition to the President's policies in Iraq and in defense of the Constitution," says Feingold. "I thank Congressman Hinchey for his willingness to stand up to this administration for its misleading statements leading up to and during our military involvement in Iraq, as well as its attack on the rule of law. I am working with Congressman Hinchey and others in crafting these censure resolutions condemning the damaging actions of this administration. Censure is about holding the administration accountable. Congress must be on the record repudiating the administration's misconduct, both for the American people, and for history."
The censure resolutions carry no formal penalty. Unmentioned in the Constitution or in the procedural rules of the House or Senate, a censure vote would not even have the authority to compel the president or vice president to respond to Congress. Yet, a rare rebuke from one or both houses of Congress would put Bush and Cheney on notice that they must either change their approaches in the final 18 months of their tenure or face an even stronger push for their impeachment and removal from office.
An honest review of the records of Bush and Cheney leaves little doubt that impeachment is warranted, and 14 members of the House have now signed on as cosponsors of Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich's proposal to impeach Cheney. But for a Congress that has shown little taste for the serious work of upholding the Constitution, the censure resolutions offer what Feingold refers to as "moderate" response to administration wrongdoing.
Censure of Bush, Cheney and their underlings by the House or Senate would be meaningful. It would confirm that America has reached a too-long delayed "accountability moment." And, assuming that Bush and Cheney continue to respond to any congressional challenge like belligerent school boys rather than sworn defenders of the republic, it is highly unlikely that a renewed push to censure Bush and Cheney will undermine the burgeoning grassroots campaign for impeachment. Only if Bush and Cheney were to acknowledge their wrongs, change their policies and finish their terms as the model officials they have never been would a censure drive push impeachment off the table.
Demands for censure and impeachment ought to be seen as complimentary. They are both expressions of the desire of enlightened members of the legislative branch to begin holding errant executives to account.
Hinchey is right when he says that, "History must show that Congress stood up to this administration and formally condemned it."
Ultimately, history may ask less of Congress than the American people. The people are already expressing a desire for more than a formal condemnation of Bush and Cheney. Fifty-four percent, according to a recent American Research Group poll, want the vice president impeached. Support for impeaching the president hovers just below 50 -- and the anti-Bush, anti-Cheney numbers have been rising, rapidly, in recent months.
But a formal condemnation, in the form of censure resolutions, ought not be dismissed as a compromise or a deviation from the one true path of impeachment. Getting members of the House and Senate to sign on for censuring Bush and Cheney forces them to start thinking about the administration's lawlessness, it gets them on the record for accountability and it narrows the gap for the leap to impeach. John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
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