As the House Judiciary Committee took up the question of how best to address what its chairman described as "the Imperial Presidency of George W. Bush," it was the ranking Republican in the room, Iowa Congressman Steve King, who observed that, "We are hear having impeachment hearings before the Judiciary Committee."
"These are impeachment hearings before the United States Congress," King continued. "I never imagined I would ever be sitting on this side when something like this happened."
King was not happy about the circumstance.
A resolute defender of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, the congressman was objecting to the very mention of the "I" word.
As it happened, impeachment was mentioned dozens of times during the hearing, often in significant detail and frequently as a necessary response to lawless actions of the president and vice president.
King's statement addressed the uncertain character of Friday morning's attempt by the relevant committee of the chamber empowered by the founders to impose accountability on presidents and vice presidents to tackle what Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers, D-Michigan, referred to as "numerous credible allegations of serious misconduct by officials in the Bush Administration."
Conyers explained that "to the regret of many, this is not an impeachment hearing." For that to happen, Conyers argued, the committee would need clearer authorization from the full House.
But members of the committee, the Democrats and the Republicans, as well as a bipartisan panel of House members and another panel of former House members, and academics and activists, repeatedly put the impeachment on the table of a chamber where the speaker had once denied it a place.
Congressman Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, told the committee that President Bush and Vice President Cheney had committed acts that make theirs "the most impeachable administration in the history of our country."
Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee, held up a copy of the Constitution and announced, "There is a real question of whether this Constitution is being protected."
Republican members of the committee griped. Indiana Congressman Mike Pence complained that the entire session - with its discussion not just of impeachment but of legislative initiatives to address executive secrecy and overreach - caused him to worry about "the criminalization of American politics."
Addressing his remarks to Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich, the author of articles of impeachment against President Bush and Vice President Cheney that provoked Friday's hearing, Pence said, "I just believe the gentleman from Ohio is wrong."
Kucinich, who is not a member of the Judiciary Committee, stood his ground, arguing when he addressed the committee that a failure to impeach would not merely let Bush off the hook but signal to future presidents that they, too, may reject the rule of law and refuse to cooperate with Congress.
Several members of the committee were, if anything, more passionate in their remarks than Kucinich.
Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson told his colleagues that if they failed to act and President Bush authorized an illegal attack on Iran, they might look back on their dismissal on the neglect of their duty to check and balance an errant executive as a deadly mistake.
It was that sense of urgency that motivated committee member Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, to say explain that, "What this Congress does, or chooses not to do in furthering the investigation of the serious allegations against this administration - and if just cause is found, to hold them accountable - will impact the conduct of future presidents, perhaps for generations."
"Mr. Chairman," Baldwin continued, "there are those who would say that holding this hearing - examining whether or not the president and vice president broke the law - is frivolous. I not only reject this, I believe there is no task more important for this Congress than to seriously consider whether our nation's leaders have violated their oath of office. The American public expects no less. It is, after all, their Constitution. No president or congress has the authority to override that document, whereby 'We the People' conferred upon the branches of government limited and defined power, and provided for meaningful checks and balances."
There can be no question at this late date in the Bush presidency that the issue of whether the American system will be characterized by "meaningful checks and balances" is at stake - and that goes to the heart of the matter of why Friday's hearing ought not be the end of a process but a beginning.
Even after George Bush and Dick Cheney have left the White House, the definition of the presidency that they have crafted will remain.
"On January 20, 2009, the next president and vice president of the United States will stand before the American people and take an oath of office, swearing to '... preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.' This commitment and obligation is so fundamental to our democracy that our nation's founders prescribed that oath in our Constitution. They also provided for the removal of the president and vice president for, among other things, 'high crimes and misdemeanors,'" Baldwin explained to the committee. "Presidents and vice presidents do not take that oath in a vacuum. They are informed by the actions or inactions of past presidents and congresses, who establish precedents for the future."
It is in the power of the Congress to begin setting the precedent to which Baldwin addressed herself. That power was defined by the framers of the Constitution, as were the practices and procedures to be used in executing it.
With that in mind, Baldwin correctly outlined the next steps for a committee and a Congress that has begun to place not just the matter of impeachment but the broader question of the imperial presidency on the table but that certainly has not completed the process"
(The) American people have been forced to sit by while credible allegations of abuse of power mount:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ We have seen this Administration fabricate the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and allege, despite all evidence to the contrary, a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. These lies dragged our country into a preemptive and unjustified war that has taken the lives of more than 4,000 U.S. troops, injured 30,000 more, and will cost our nation more than a trillion dollars.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ We watched as this Administration again undermined national security by manipulating and exaggerating evidence of Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities and openly threatened aggression against Iran, despite no evidence that Iran has the intention or capability of attacking the U.S.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ We have looked on in horror as the Administration suspended habeas corpus by claiming the power to declare any person an "enemy combatant" - ignoring the Geneva Convention protections that the U.S. helped create.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ We have seen torture and rendition of prisoners in violation of international law and stated American policy and values, and destruction of the videotaped evidence of such torture, under the tenure of this Administration.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ We have seen this Administration spy on Americans without a court order or oversight in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ We watched as U.S. Attorneys pursued politically-motivated prosecutions in violation of the law and perhaps at the direction of this White House.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ We watched as Administration officials outed Valerie Plame Wilson as a covert agent of the CIA and then intentionally obstructed justice by disseminating false information through the White House press office.
As we know, the framers of our Constitution called for impeachment only in the case of high crimes and misdemeanors. The standard is purposely set high because we should not impeach for personal or political gain - only to uphold and safeguard our democracy. Sadly, in my judgment, at least two high ranking administration officials have met that standard. Although the call to impeach is one I take neither easily nor lightly, I now firmly believe that impeachment hearings are the appropriate and necessary next step.
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