The Impeachment Process in US Government

Ben Franklin’s Better Way of Removing 'Obnoxious' Presidents

Old photo of truck with an “Impeach Nixon” banner parked outside the White House
Impeach Nixon Protest. MPI / Getty Images

The impeachment process in U.S. government was first suggested by Benjamin Franklin during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Noting that the traditional mechanism for removing “obnoxious” chief executives — like kings — from power had been assassination, Franklin glibly suggested the impeachment process as a more rational and preferable method. 

Presidential impeachment may be the last thing you would ever think could happen in America.

In fact, since 1841, over one-third of all American Presidents have either died in office, became disabled, or resigned. However, no American President has ever been forced from office due to impeachment.

Only four times in our history, has Congress held serious discussions of presidential impeachment:

  • Andrew Johnson was actually impeached when Congress became unhappy with the way he was dealing with some post-Civil War matters, but Johnson was acquitted in the Senate by one vote and remained in office.
  • Congress introduced a resolution to impeach John Tyler over state's rights issues, but the resolution failed.
  • William J. Clinton was impeached by the House on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in relation to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was eventually acquitted by the Senate.

    The impeachment process plays out in Congress and requires critical votes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is often said that the “House impeaches and the Senate convicts,” or not. In essence, the House first decides if there are grounds to impeach the president, and if it does, the Senate holds a formal impeachment trial.

    In the House of Representatives

    • The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee will propose a resolution calling for the Judiciary Committee to begin a formal inquiry into the issue of impeachment.
    • Based on their inquiry, the Judiciary Committee will send another resolution composed of one or more "Articles of Impeachment" to the full House stating that impeachment is warranted and why or that impeachment is not called for.
    • The Full House (probably operating under special floor rules set by the House Rules Committee) will debate and vote on each Article of Impeachment.
    • Should any one of the Articles of Impeachment be approved by a simple majority vote, the President will be "impeached." However, being impeached is sort of like being indicted for a crime. The president will remain in office pending the outcome of the Senate impeachment trial.

    In the Senate

    • The Articles of Impeachment are received from the House.
    • The Senate formulates rules and procedures for holding a trial.
      • The Senate meets in private session to debate a verdict.
      • The Senate, in open session, votes on a verdict. A 2/3 supermajority vote of the Senate will result in a conviction.
      • The Senate will vote to remove the President from office.
      • The Senate may also vote (by a simple majority) to prohibit the President from holding any public office in the future.

      Once impeached officials are convicted in the Senate, their removal from office is automatic and may not be appealed. In the 1993 case of  Nixon v. United States, the U.S. the Supreme Court ruled that the federal judiciary cannot review impeachment proceedings.

      At the state level, state legislatures can impeach state officials, including governors, in accordance with their respective state constitutions.

      Impeachable Offenses

      Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution says, "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."

      To date, two federal judges have been impeached and removed from office based on charges of bribery. No federal official has ever faced impeachment based on charges of treason. All other impeachment proceedings held against federal officials, including three presidents, have been based on charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

      According to constitutional lawyers, "High Crimes and Misdemeanors" are (1) real criminality -- breaking a law; (2) abuses of power; (3) "violation of public trust" as defined by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. In 1970, then-Representative Gerald R. Ford defined impeachable offenses as "whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history."

      Historically, Congress has issued Articles of Impeachment for acts in three general categories:

      • Behavior grossly incompatible with the proper function and purpose of the office.
      • Employing the power of the office for an improper purpose or for personal gain.

      The impeachment process is political, rather than criminal in nature. Congress has no power to impose criminal penalties on impeached officials. But criminal courts may try and punish officials if they have committed crimes.