Recent talk from Republican senators and congressmen about impeaching President Barack Obama may serve just to rally the base while members are home on August recess, as a constitutional law expert says conservatives seem to be jumping the gun.
The latest Republican to talk of a possible Obama impeachment is Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who on Wednesday told constituents at a town hall meeting that the president is getting “perilously close” to the constitutional standard for impeachment.
The senator was responding to a constituent who asked who will hold Obama accountable for choosing which parts of the nation’s laws he wants to execute. The president decided to unilaterally delay the employer requirement of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known also as Obamacare, for a year, which has angered lawmakers on the other side of the aisle.
“What you have to do is you have to establish the criteria that would qualify for proceedings against the president, and that’s called impeachment,” Coburn said. “But that’s not something you take lightly, and you have to use a historical precedent of what that means. I think there’s some intended violation of the law in this administration, but I also think there’s a ton of incompetence of people who are making decisions.”
But even if there is incompetence, he said, the administration still should be forced to abide by the law.
“My little wiggle out of that when I get that written to me is I believe that needs to be evaluated and determined, but thank goodness it doesn’t have to happen in the Senate until they’ve brought charges in the House,” Coburn went on. “Those are serious things, but we’re in a serious time. I don’t have the legal background to know if that rises to high crimes and misdemeanor, but I think they’re getting perilously close.”
Probably not, said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“Being close to doing something wrong is not the same as doing something wrong,” Gerhardt said. “When [Coburn] says perilously close, I guess he needs to be very clear about what he’s talking about.”
The professor added that impeachment is not meant to be used as a substitute for elections. Obama was re-elected by a comfortable margin last November, but much of the congressional logjam that plagued his first term has continued.
“It would not be surprising that some Republicans or conservatives who are not happy with his election might be interested in getting him out of office,” Gerhardt said. “They impeached the last Democratic president, and who knows whether or not that’s part of their playbook. But I think impeachment is not the answer to what may be a political problem that the president can work out with Congress.
“I mean there are ways to do this short of impeachment,” he said, “working together to get the right kind of law passed.”
Under the Constitution, the president, vice president and other civil officers “shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” High crimes and misdemeanors, though undefined, would be serious breaches of public trust or serious abuses of power, Gerhardt said.
“But the framers left it largely to the discretion of Congress to figure out what would be those breaches that would be sufficiently serious that impeachment would be appropriate sanction,” he added. “We’re still gathering facts, so I wouldn’t put the cart before the horse. The second thing is I think the president has tried to be open and transparent about this.”
Obama has told the New York Times that Congress is free to make the case if they believe he has done anything wrong.
“But there’s not an action that I take that you don’t have some folks in Congress who say that I’m usurping my authority,” Obama said. “Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency. And I don’t think that’s a secret. But ultimately, I’m not concerned about their opinions – very few of them, by the way, are lawyers, much less constitutional lawyers.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has also said the president’s delaying the health care law is “not an unusual process.”