After months of revelations about his ham-handed attempts to politicize investigations and prosecutions by U.S. Attorneys and sections of the Department of Justice he heads, after his repeated refusals to cooperate with Congress and his deliberate attempts to deceive the House and Senate judiciary committees, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has invited impeachment to an extent rarely seen in the long and sordid history of executive assaults on the rule of law.
And Congressman Jay Inslee is answering the invitation.
The Washington Democrat moved Tuesday to introduce a resolution that directs the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether Alberto R. Gonzales, Attorney General of the United States, should be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Inslee's initiative is a serious one, and he is in many senses precisely the right member of the House to be making this push.
As a former prosecutor, he is well acquainted with the requirements of the oath that all House members swear to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic." He is, as well, a member of the Democratic establishment in the House, a relatively moderate representative who is on good terms with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But, most significantly, he is a representative from a state with an active impeachment movement.
For more than a year, the Washington for Impeachment campaign has demanded that Congress act to hold members of the Bush-Cheney administration to account for their high crimes and misdemeanors. Inslee has heard those demands, loud and clear, and he recognizes their broad appeal. Thus, his move to open an impeachment inquiry is proceeding on the precise lines that the founders intended.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason and their compatriots believed that impeachment should be an organic process, driven by public outrage over executive excess. They intended that the people would raise the call for accountability and that the federal legislators closest to the grassroots, members of the House, would take it up.
Pelosi -- who today admitted that as member of her caucus, as opposed to its leader, she "would probably advocate" for impeachment -- upset the organic process with her declaration last year that "impeachment is off the table." She was speaking specifically about President Bush, but her words chilled efforts to hold any members of the administration to account.
The chill began to come off in a meaningful way when a maverick member of the Democratic caucus, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, introduced articles of impeachment against Vice President Cheney. Fourteen House members, most of them stalwart progressives who are made of sturdier stuff than Pelosi and her lieutenants, have agreed so far to cosponsor Kucinich's resolution. They have taken the right stand and their numbers will grow.
But Inslee's initiative is of a different character. He is no maverick. And he has attracted cosponsors from the mainstream of the caucus, including a number of former prosecutors. Initial cosponsors included Xavier Becerra of California, Michael Arcuri of New York, Ben Chandler of Kentucky, Dennis Moore of Kansas, Bruce Braley of Iowa and Tom Udall of New Mexico. And as word of the initiative spread, more members indicated that they would sign on, including Oregon Democrats Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio.
Inslee's initial plan was to solicit support from former prosecutors, many of whom serve on the Judiciary Committee. But his resolution is attracting attention from many of the 122 members who in May cosponsored a resolution by California Democrat Adam Schiff "expressing no confidence in the performance of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and urging the President to request his resignation."
It has become clear that the administration has no intention of abandoning Gonzales -- especially with Vice President Cheney's Monday declaration that "I'm a big fan of Al's." So Inslee has offered the appropriate response.
"It's indefensible to allow the continued violation of American privacy, and it's indefensible to treat the truth with such cavalier disregard when talking to the American people and Congress," the congressman says. "So if the president won't do his job (and either seek the Attorney General's resignation or fire him) we'll do ours."
As a former prosecutor, Inslee is doing things by the book.
His resolution does not feature explicit articles of impeachment. Rather, it initiates a process that should lead to the writing of articles by the House Judiciary Committee -- along lines similar to those seen during the period before the committee voted for three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. "Our resolution follows the careful procedure of conducting a thorough investigation before the House would decide on articles of impeachment -- a fairness the attorney general did not afford to his fired U.S. attorneys," explains Inslee.
If the committee chooses to free itself from Pelosi's grip and do its work, and if it approaches the task seriously, it will have no difficulty developing articles of impeachment against Gonzales. Politicizing federal investigations and prosecutions and lying to Congress are classic examples of impeachable offenses. So too, by any reasonable measure, should be faking up flimsy justifications for torture, warrantless wiretapping and other abuses of civil liberties.
The clear evidence of wrongdoing will not lead allies of the administration to roll over and let an impeachment move against Gonzales advance easily. Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, the Bush partisan who is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, hastily denounced Inslee's initiative. "The call by Democrats to impeach Attorney General Gonzales is a misuse of congressional power for purely political reasons and a waste of the American publics' money and time," grumbled Smith.
The Texan is wrong. If House Democrats were to avoid proposing the impeachment of Gonzales -- presumably out of a desire to let the Attorney General "twist in the wind" and further discredit a Republican administration and its congressional allies -- that would be a "misuse of congressional power for purely political reasons."
Impeaching Gonzales is not merely an appropriate use of congressional power. It is the only appropriate use of congressional power in this circumstance.
It is, as well, what Inslee's constituents want. Washington for Impeachment director Linda Boyd hailed the introduction of the impeachment resolution and declared, "We will impeach to restore the rule of law!"
Boyd's got it right.
Impeachment is not merely about Gonzales. It is about renewing the Constitutionally-dictated system of checks and balances that virtually collapsed during the first six years of the Bush-Cheney interregnum. President Bush's disregard for the rule of law, and for the cautious assertions of the House and Senate up to this point, has created a Constitutional crisis. Impeachment, alone, is the proper response to that crisis.
"The president cannot ignore an impeachment," says Inslee, who correctly explains that, "This is the only option available to the American people."
But this may not be the only use of the option. The investigation of Gonzales will, necessarily, touch on Bush and Cheney. And, as it does, the issue of how Congress must deal with the impeachable offenses of a lawless president and vice president will, finally, be placed on the table.
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.'"