Is Impeachment Becoming Routine?

The 2024 O’Dwyer Forum was marked by bipartisanship and good humor.

March 2, 2024

Moderator Casey Burgat, former U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Il.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.)

From left, moderator Casey Burgat, former U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) discussed whether impeachment is becoming routine. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Bipartisanship was on display at the George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium on Thursday when two congressmen—one each from either side of the aisle—sat down for a friendly discussion. While they expressed some disagreements on issues surrounding impeachment, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and former U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., found common ground on other subjects, particularly the need for Congress to take back the power it has ceded to the executive branch (in declaring war, for example) and to assert its preeminence under the Constitution.

The occasion was the 2024 Paul O’Dwyer Endowed Forum for Political Ethics, presented by the Graduate School of Political Management, housed in the College of Professional Studies. Brian O’Dwyer, B.A. ’66 and L.L.M. ’76, endowed the annual event in honor of his father, Paul. The title of this year’s forum was The Normalization of Impeachments: History, Ethics and Implications. A reception preceded the discussion, which was recorded for a GSPM Mastering the Room podcast.

President Ellen M. Granberg introduced the two panelists and moderator Casey Burgat, director of the Legislative Affairs Program in GSPM, after brief welcoming remarks in which she expressed gratitude to O’Dwyer, to the guest speakers and to event organizer Liesl Riddle, CPS dean.

“In today’s political landscape, the fundamental concept of bipartisan leadership is facing unprecedented challenges as we stand at the threshold of the 2024 election,” Granberg said. “It’s more important than ever that we underscore and teach the enduring values of civic engagement, civility, integrity and transparency. These kinds of conversations are critical to our academic mission here at GW.”

Burgat kicked off the discussion by noting that the founders set a high bar by making impeachment the remedy for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” One of the main arguments from former President Donald Trump’s defenders, Burgat said, is that whatever he may have done didn’t rise to that level.

“The full constitutional phrase, of course, is ‘treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors,’” Raskin said, “so treason and bribery are often taken as illustrative of the kinds of offenses, the gravity of crimes that should be considered.”

Founder James Madison defined the type of offenses at issue as major crimes against the Republic itself, Raskin said, so the commission of a statutory crime is not necessary for impeachment.

“In truth, there’s no way we’re going to be able to write down every conceivable thing that could happen, and then say, this is the set of crimes we all agree are high crimes and misdemeanors,” Raskin said. “Who ever thought we would have a president of the United States who would incite an insurrection against his own government? But I think everybody would agree, whether or not you think Donald Trump did it, that insurrection against the government is itself a high crime and misdemeanor.”

The answer to constitutional questions will always depend on political realities at the moment, Davis said.

“Look at the ambiguity of a provision like the impeachment clause,” Davis said. “It is up to the interpretation. The forefathers did give us, as members of Congress, the ability to determine what constitutes that crime. And if anybody says that politics does not become a part of the equation, they certainly have not looked at the last three major impeachments.”

Davis now believes he was wrong about the Clinton impeachment, which took place when he was a congressional staffer. When Clinton lied about his relations with Monica Lewinsky, Davis said, it should more properly have been a matter for censure. But Trump’s two impeachments have created an environment in which impeachment will become routine in “the next 10 years, maybe 20,” when the House majority is not in the president’s party, he added.

Though he agreed with Davis that Clinton’s conduct did not rise to the level of high crimes, Raskin said he did not share the notion that impeachment is simply a matter of whether Congress likes an official’s conduct. While he would not impeach Trump for paying hush money to a porn star, Raskin noted, an attempt to nullify a presidential election is “a direct attack on our system of government.”

Trump would probably not be the next Republican presidential nominee if he had not been impeached for inciting insurrection, Davis said, because it plays to the former president’s political strengths when he can frame himself as a victim. In general, he added, if the Senate won’t convict, impeachment may be ill-advised. But it isn’t possible to know, Raskin countered, if the Senate will convict, and there is value in doing something because it is right, without considering its odds of success.

Shifting gears, Burgat asked the panel to consider congressional power. Davis said that if the ruling party could increase its majority, tougher rules and laws could result. Raskin advocated restoring legislative contempt for people who violate congressional subpoenas.

Noting that he had served with Davis on the House Administration Committee, Raskin said that would be “a great place to hear motions against people for contempt of Congress,” but said in his view, “The great abdication has been in war powers and in foreign policy.”

Saying he couldn’t resist quizzing students, Burgat asked audience members if they knew the last time Congress had declared war. When the answer came—World War II—Burgat asked, “Have we had any conflict since then?” The answer, of course, is yes. Raskin and Davis agreed that the timidity of elected officials could explain such cases.

“If there’s a conflict,” Raskin said, “we want to reserve our power to criticize it if it goes wrong and say, ‘Well, we didn’t vote for it’—or, if it goes right, to say, ‘Yeah, we’re with you the whole way,’ as opposed to us having to make the decision, which is what the founders desired.”

Gerrymandering was also among the topics discussed before a brief Q & A session concluded the evening. The question that elicited the most discussion was about what might surprise the founders if they could see today’s world.

Raskin said he thought the largely partisan votes during the Trump impeachment trial after the insurrection would shock the founders.

“They would be shocked that the political parties ended up monopolizing so much power,” Raskin said, and by the fact that “those of us in public office would come to identify primarily with our party rather than with our branch of government.”

“I think they would be puzzled by a lot of things in modern society,” Davis said, including advanced technology. “I think they would have been clearly disappointed in the challenge to the Electoral College process and the certification that happened in 2020,” he added.

In closing remarks, Raskin spoke of democracy’s expansion as “the tantalizing dream and the motor force of our history” and noted that the Constitution has been amended 17 times since the Bill of Rights was issued. He advocated abolishing the Electoral College in favor of a “one person, one vote” system (the standard in many countries around the world) in which the person getting the greatest number of popular votes is the winner.

On the issue of the Electoral College, Davis expressed an opposing view, saying “It’s part of our Constitution,” but noting, “This is exactly the type of disagreement and debate that our forefathers had.”

Raskin said that Davis had been “a great colleague” in Congress and the evening ended with a hug between them.