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Censure and Impeachment | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Censure and Impeachment

There is every reason to be enthusiastic about U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold's decision to ask the Senate to consider a pair of censure resolutions condemning the President, Vice President and other administration officials for misconduct relating to the war in Iraq and for their repeated assaults on the rule of law.

Indeed, as the movement to impeach Bush and Cheney attracts more support with each passing day, Feingold's resolutions should be seen as evidence that the essential American principle of presidential accountability is finally being put back on the table by responsible members of Congress.

Feingold is renewing and extending a call for censure that that the Wisconsin Democrat initially made in March, 2006. The senator now proposes one resolution censuring the president, the vice president and their aides for overstating the case that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, particularly nuclear weapons, and falsely implying a relationship with al Qaeda and links to 9/11; for failing to plan for the civil conflict and humanitarian problems that the intelligence community predicted; for over-stretching the Army, Marine Corps and Guard with prolonged deployments and for justifying U.S. military involvement in Iraq by repeatedly distorting the situation on the ground there. A second resolution would censure the administration for approving the illegal NSA warrantless wiretapping program, for promoting extreme policies on torture, the Geneva Conventions, and detainees at Guantanamo; and for refusing to recognize legitimate congressional oversight into the improper firings of U.S. Attorneys.

Feingold, a Constitutional scholar, is well aware that these misdeeds of the George Bush, Dick Cheney and their minions fall, as the senator has suggested, "right in the strike zone of the concept of high crimes and misdemeanors." He has frequently suggested that he "would not rule out any form of accountability," including an impeachment inquiry beginning with proper investigation and hearings.

But, as a senator, Feingold cannot initiate an impeachment.

The founders, wisely, rested that power with members of the U.S. House.

The drafters of the Constitution feared that the Senate -- which was initially conceived of as an appointed chamber, more akin to the British House of Lords than the elected body it has become -- would be too formal and cautious about holding presidents and vice presidents to account.

So they gave the authority to impeach members of the executive branch to the House, which was elected from districts and, as a result, more closely in tune with the ebbs and flows of popular sentiment. James Madison, George Mason and the other essential authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights wanted impeachment to be a popular process. And the House was the more populist chamber.

That said, they did not intend for senators to sit idly by while high crimes and misdemeanors were committed.

Feingold is right to describe his censure motions as "a relatively modest response." But they are precisely the response that a senator can and should propose.

"Censure is about holding the administration accountable," says Feingold. "Congress needs to formally condemn the President and members of the administration for misconduct before and during the Iraq war, and for undermining the rule of law at home. Censure is not a cure for the devastating toll this administration's actions have taken on this country. But when future generations look back at the terrible misconduct of this administration, they need to see that a co-equal branch of government stood up and held to account those who violated the principles on which this nation was founded."

Censure is not the cure. Impeachment is. But censuring Bush and Cheney ought not be seen as a compromise, or an insufficient response to the crisis. It is a senatorial compliment to the burgeoning movement for impeachment -- a movement that today delivered petitions with more than 1,000,000 signatures to Congressman John Conyers appealing to him to begin impeachment proceedings. Conyers, it should be noted, indicated at a recent meeting in California with members of Progressive Democrats of America that he would be receptive to appeals from other members of the House to develop a game-plan for considering serious impeachment proposals.

Supporting Feingold's censure resolutions should not distract from nor negate the push for impeachment. Rather, moves to get the Senate to censure Bush and Cheney ought to be seen as vital pieces of the broader struggle to hold this administration to account.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

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