Today the House of Representatives formally authorized an impeachment investigation and committed itself to opening up the proceedings to greater public scrutiny. While this is in part a political maneuver designed to muffle Republican criticism, it is also—even if incidentally—a healthy step in the direction of fundamental fairness.
During the Clinton impeachment, I advised several members of Congress and was involved in hearings held by the Constitution Subcommittee, whose jurisdiction at the time, among other things, included matters of constitutional rights and the question of what amounts to impeachable offenses. Those hearings were partisan and sometimes acrimonious. Witnesses for each side were subjected to questioning both friendly and critical, and sometimes openly hostile. But those hearings were open to the public and aired live, much as the bulk of the Watergate hearings were. Both Democrats and Republicans could and did summon witnesses. The senators and representatives with whom I consulted usually seemed genuinely interested in learning about what they could and couldn’t do within the Constitution’s impeachment constraints.
All of these things—then as now—show a sense of commitment to process that hasn’t always been so pronounced. Impeachment may seem a messy process today, but over time it has generally become more deliberative and more fair.
Imagine the following scenario: On a Monday, Congress learns that a high-up government official has offered a quid pro quo to a foreign government, asking it to interfere in domestic politics. The House of Representatives immediately refers the matter to a committee without formally authorizing an impeachment investigation. By Wednesday, the committee recommends impeachment. On Friday, without calling any witnesses, reviewing any additional evidence, or giving the official in question any formal notice or chance for a hearing, the House votes to impeach him. To top it all off, the House has not even begun to draft, much less voted on, any formal charges; in fact, it doesn’t adopt articles of impeachment for another six months.