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You might be surprised how not co-equal the branches of the U.S. government were supposed to be

U.S. Capitol Building
REUTERS/Jason Reed
U.S. Capitol Building

It is endlessly debatable what “high crimes and misdemeanors” might justify impeachment of a president, but, luckily for the current incumbent, ignorance of (and perhaps disrespect for) the Constitution is probably not an impeachable offense. 

Still, I found it amusing to read in a recent very smart Garry Wills piece in the New York Review of Books that the president had (by tweet, of course, in October) called for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff to be “immediately impeached.”

If he was a little better informed about the fundamental laws, rules, norms etc. of the system of government over which he presides, Trump would have known that the members of Congress are not susceptible to the impeachment process.

I find this latest demonstration of the current incumbent’s ignorance of the constitutional system mostly amusing and not terribly surprising, but since Wills brought it to light, I thought I would share it with you. 


The impeachment provisions appear in Article II of the Constitution, which is the section on the Executive Branch. It says (in Section 4) that “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

By contrast, each house of Congress has the sole power to expel a member, on its own, for misconduct. And each has done so. This difference has been clearly established and accepted since fairly early in constitutional history. If Trump had known how it works, he should have tweeted that the House should expel Pelosi and Schiff, and I’m sure the House, controlled by a Democratic majority that elected Pelsosi as its speaker, would have taken his views into account.

By the way, the bigger argument in the Wills piece is that the whole idea of three “co-equal” branches of the federal government is somewhere between an error and an exaggeration. Yes, there are some checks and balances across the branches, but, at least as the framers envisioned it, Congress was meant to be, by far, the dominant element, and if you looked at the actual powers assigned by the Constitution itself, you’d see what he means.

Other than the power to veto a bill (which Congress can override), the Constitution gives the president no power over lawmaking. He’s commander in chief in time of war (constitutionally speaking), but he doesn’t get the job unless Congress declares a war.

Over the course of history, presidents have acquired quite a few additional powers, of course, mostly just by grabbing them and getting away with it. But if you were to actually take the Constitution seriously, actually read it and count up the powers and which branch wields which ones, you’d be surprised how NOT coequal the benches were supposed to be. 

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/06/2019 - 11:59 am.

    That is really not surprising in a country formed in the process of the breaking away from a monarchy. The current extension to ” the President cannot be challenged” and “the President cannot even be investigated for wrong-doing” would be a great surprise to the writers of the Constitution.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/06/2019 - 02:08 pm.

      In other words, the President was supposed to -preside- over Congress; not to rule it or dictate to it. And Congress, not the President, has the power to enact legislation.
      At the most, the President can veto acts of Congress, but Congress in turn has the power to override a Presidential veto.
      Clearly, the Constitution gives Congress the ultimate authority.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/06/2019 - 12:29 pm.

    All branches of government are co-equal, but some are more co-equal than others?

  3. Submitted by Keith Dawson on 12/06/2019 - 01:07 pm.

    I too would have thought that legislative branch members are not subject to impeachment, as you say. But the Post’s fact checker Salvador Rizzo cites a case from 1797 in which a Senator was impeached and tried.

    “The House impeached Sen. William Blount of Tennessee in 1797 on treason charges related to land speculation, and the Senate quickly expelled him. Senators held an impeachment trial after expelling Blount, but later acquitted him.”

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/12/06/can-former-presidents-be-impeached/

    • Submitted by Eric Black on 12/06/2019 - 02:11 pm.

      You’re right Keith, about Blount. But that was early and the only case, and the Senate, rather than giving him an impeachment trial, expelled him under its own power to do so, not the impeachment power.
      That established that members of Congress are not subject to the impeachment provisions and are not “civil officers” for impeachment purposes. The House hasn’t impeached a member of Congress since Blount.

  4. Submitted by BK Anderson on 12/06/2019 - 02:25 pm.

    Trump’s ignorance is legion and extends far, far beyond the niceties of the failed US Constitution. The question is whether there is an area of general knowledge in which a below average high school senior would fail to run circles around our Stable Genius. Perhaps tax avoidance schemes–but those are not really of any great advantage in a US president. And it’s not very likely that Trump himself ever understood 10% of any of his returns–his demonstrated ignorance on virtually every other subject counsels against it. I suppose one must grant that he an experienced conman.

    Of far greater concern is that a cohesive political minority looked, saw and approved this colossal ignorance as suitable for the Oval Office. And after watching even greater demonstrations of Trump’s mountainous ignorance, still does! And this leaves to one side their total indifference to Trump’s obvious severe personality disorders.

    The rise of executive power and unbalancing of the Constitution has been long in the making, but certainly the manifold abuses of unregulated capitalism, the Great Depression, the New Deal, WWII and the Cold War catapulted the executive into a position of power not really envisioned by the Framers, who cannot be faulted for failing to envision a modern democratic state, and in any event would have seen no benefit (or likelihood) that the US would come be the most powerful nation on earth.

    It does not help, of course, that the Supreme Court has given plutocrats the “right” to openly corrupt the Congress with oceans of (influence purchasing) money, which has made pursuing the public good almost impossible and resulted in increasing paralysis of Congress.

    The conservative movement, of course, has had no real use for Congress for decades, resenting it since the days of Watergate and using it (when in power) mostly to cut taxes, satiate the bloated military, and generally wreck the fiscal position of the Treasury, undermining national government as a result. In the eyes of conservatives, a modern state of 330 million has no actual problems to address via legislation, not health care financing, climate change, income inequality, failing infrastructure, pollution, rising monopoly power, gun massacres, foreign election interference–nothing! Everything is Just Great, and all’s to be done is the repeal of Big Government and Spreading Freedom (for plutocrats).

    As a result, a Repub Congress is a hapless, incompetent, indolent and corrupt thing, a legislative body which is ideologically opposed to governing—which makes Trump (and McConnell’s) latest charge of the “Do Nothing Dem Congress!” spectacularly absurd and hollow.

  5. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/07/2019 - 01:56 pm.

    Here is a video of Speaker Pelosi in a recent Town Hall on CNN, explaining why Clinton committing perjury before Congress was not an impeachable offense, nor was George W Bush lying to Congress about WMD in Iraq even though she was Chair of the Intelligence Committee and she knew they were lying.

    So getting America into a disastrous trillion dollar war on false pretenses/lies/perjury costing hundreds of thousands of lives is not an impeachable offense, but asking Ukraine to assist in an American DOJ investigation of American corruption in Ukraine is.

    https://twitter.com/CNN/status/1202784879957729280?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1202784879957729280&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nakedcapitalism.com%2F2019%2F12%2Flinks-12-7-19.html

    • Submitted by Don Wallen on 12/08/2019 - 09:51 am.

      Of course Trump was not asking Ukraine to investigate corruption, he was asking for them to at least announce an investigation to discredit a political opponent. I understand that asking a foreign government to influence an election is illegal and a little more serious than a lie about a gross but legal consensual sexual encounter.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/09/2019 - 08:48 am.

        Trump did not say that in the phone call, Sundlan alone said that was the case. The proof is not as deep as the Truth that is repeating it 17 milliondy times in the media.

        Otherwise, neither you nor Paul seem to be bothered much by the lies that got us into Iraq, with the complicity of Ms Pelosi. Which says a lot about the Democrativc Party at this point. War war and more war.

        • Submitted by Don Wallen on 12/09/2019 - 09:17 am.

          So Trump’s hand picked ambassador with whom he communicated regularly, is not reliable? A Democratic plant maybe?

          You think Ms. Pelosi is to blame for trusting Bush/Cheney and therefore the Democrats are more responsible for the war than the Republicans who started it.?

          By the way, I and most of the people I know were opposed to the war.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/08/2019 - 01:54 pm.

      Neither Clinton nor Bush reaped personal benefit from their actions; Trump did.
      Their mistakes were regrettable, as were the mistakes of many presidents involving wars.
      And of course Clinton’s perjury did not involve his actions as President; it involved his personal behavior with a consenting (if of unequal power) adult.
      If we impeached every president who had an extramarital affair, we’d have to include FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bush I, and Johnson.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 12/09/2019 - 08:55 am.

        Well, Bush was and is treated like a former Warrior King, and Bill Clinton is still treated like an untouchable saint in the Dem firmament. And their family and friends got rich from their doings (Obama too is now worth a 100 million+) so in fact I would say every President since Reagan at least has treated the Presidency as a Bank.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/09/2019 - 02:42 pm.

          All Presidents (and Senators and Congerspersons) reap some financial benefits from their elected experience after they leave office. The difference is receiving direct emoluments while in office.
          Lacking evidence to the contrary, Trump is unique among recent Presidents in having profited personally while in office.

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