With the backdrop of a second impeachment trial recently concluded in the Senate, America is once again embroiled in an argument on how to hold government and the actions of its officials accountable. House of Representatives Impeachment Manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) emphasized the process of impeachment was never just about removal from office, instead, “[t]he goal was always about accountability, protecting society and deterring official corruption.”
Article I, Section 3 of the United States Constitution reads that “[j]udgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.” There exists legal and historical precedent for trying former elected officials, at both the state and federal level. Former Ulysses S. Grant-era Secretary of War William W. Belknap was found to be participating in a corrupt and complex kickback collection scandal, was impeached by the House and tried by the Senate in 1876, despite resigning from office shortly before the House initiated a vote on five separate articles of impeachment.
Today, it is generally agreed upon by scholars of constitutional law that former elected officials can be impeached, tried and convicted even after leaving office. A letter signed by over 150 such scholars reads that “a singular concern of the framers in devising our constitutional system was the danger of a power-seeking populist of the type they referred to as a ‘demagogue’ rising to the highest office and overthrowing republican government.” The framers of the Constitution, aware that the influence “demagogues” wield can be carried with them even if they leave formal positions of power, created the ability for the Senate to disqualify individuals from being eligible to hold government office again. We saw this destructive power demonstrated on Jan. 6 at the storming of the Capitol.
Yet, there was still debate on Capitol Hill this past week about whether the ability of the Senate to try an official after they are no longer in office is even constitutional — not whether or not U.S. Senators should vote to actually convict President Trump.
This highlights a greater issue in our system of government — we do not have concrete systems in place to hold those who have occupied elected positions of power accountable to their actions. In its absence, our republic is allowed to slip further into bitter partisan politics. Those participating in the impeachment decision-making process, like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), can clamor for the impeachment of former elected officials like President Obama but can flip-flop and object to the impeachment of Obama’s successor, former President Trump, after his term had expired.
Without these measures in place, the grave significance the framers of the Constitution intended for impeachment to possess is diminished. Impeachment becomes less of a device to ensure integrity and enforce accountability in government, and more of a political strategy that can be used by opposing parties when things do not go their way. Recently, this shift in purpose was highlighted by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who introduced an article of impeachment against President Biden, a Democrat, citing “abuse of power by enabling bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors,” on his first full day in office. Trump, as expected, was acquitted by the Senate this past Saturday for a second time and only seven Republicans broke party ranks and voted to convict.
Defining how we must hold the government accountable will not be an easy task by any means, but it is necessary. According to a Pew Research Center study from 2019, nearly two-thirds of Americans find it hard to differentiate fact from fiction when their elected officials are speaking. Similarly, 69 percent of American adults believe that the federal government deliberately hides or withholds important information from the general public that would be beneficial for them to know. The American people largely do not trust their elected officials and government institutions. Allowing moral and ethical violations, corrupt practices and general disregard for laws and our Constitution to go unrecognized and unpunished can do nothing more than further solidify that distrust, further damaging our democracy and belief in its institutions.
To fix this issue, Congress should consider passing legislation such as H. R. 1, or the For The People Act. The bill aims to “expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy.” While this alone is not enough to strengthen the U. S. government’s accountability processes, it is a significant first step. The law, along with other similar bills, recommends provisions for ethics reform across all levels and branches of government, ranging from nonexecutive federal officers to the vice president and president themselves. However, these changes can only be effective if members of Congress and other government officials, both now and in future, refrain from casting partisan doubt on the legitimacy of impeachment processes, whether they be former or current, without a substantial argument to back their claims.
Distrust in government is an issue that will only continue to fester and spread unless it is properly dealt with — and creating a concrete system of accountability for those who disregard the laws of the nation or violate the trust of the American people is a step in the right direction.
Ahmed Sultan is a freshman double-majoring in computer science and philosophy, politics and law.