When it was becoming clear that Richard Nixon would need to be held to account for the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Watergate era—including his many obstructions of justice—the youngest and newest members of Congress stepped up. Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan, a voting-rights advocate who had been elected to the House in 1972 at the age of 36, joined the Judiciary Committee and in 1974 challenged her colleagues to recognize that “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder!”
New York Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman, a 31-year-old advocate for women’s rights who upset a Democratic incumbent in a 1972 primary, joined the same committee and delivered the message (as she later recalled) that “Presidents cannot block, tamper with, and destroy the machinery of justice that is aimed at them. If they do, it is at their peril. They face impeachment, removal from office, even imprisonment.”
While many senior members of the House, encumbered by the learned caution that so frequently weakens the will of the Congress, were slow to recognize the need to act, these newly elected House members refused to compromise their oaths of office. They had sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and they intended to “bear true faith and allegiance” to that commitment.
This is one of the many reasons it matters to refresh the membership of the Congress. Experience is valuable. But so, too, is an exuberant embrace of the duty to check and balance executives who abuse their power.
So it was exciting, and hopeful, when New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar responded boldly to the release of the redacted Mueller report that Brennan Center for Justice president Michael Waldman describes as “basically an impeachment referral to the Congress.”
Ocasio-Cortez and Omar took the referral and made the necessary call for an impeachment inquiry.
This was not a radical response. As Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor and 2020 presidential contender concluded after reviewing the evidence that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team collected, “The severity of this misconduct demands that elected officials in both parties set aside political considerations and do their constitutional duty. That means the House should initiate impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States.”
That is, of course, how the House should proceed.
Unfortunately, House Democratic leaders remain resistant to the constitutional cure to a constitutional crisis.
This is what makes the statements from Ocasio-Cortez and Omar so consequential. The newest members of the House have chosen to fill the leadership void with an appropriate answer to the Mueller report.
The special counsel and his team presented a detailed accounting of obstructions of justice by President Trump—many of which parallel those of Nixon, some of which exceed them. They then explained that “The conclusion that Congress may apply obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s knowing response was an announcement that “Mueller’s report is clear in pointing to Congress’ responsibility in investigating obstruction of justice by the President. It is our job as outlined in Article 1, Sec 2, Clause 5 of the US Constitution. As such, I’ll be signing onto Rashida Tlaib’s impeachment resolution.”
Tlaib, a first-term Democrat from Michigan, has been a clear-eyed and consistent advocate for an impeachment inquiry. “We all swore to protect our nation, and that begins with making sure that no one, including the President of the United States, is acting above the law,” Tlaib explained in a March letter urging colleagues to sign on to a resolution “recommending that the House Committee on Judiciary begin hearings, take depositions, and issue subpoenas to answer this question that is fundamental to the rule of law and the preservation of our democracy.”
With encouragement from Free Speech for People and other groups that have advocated for impeachment, and support from Texas Congressman Al Green, a stalwart backer of executive accountability, Tlaib introduced her resolution on March 27. Now, with AOC’s backing, it’s gotten a boost in attention, with headlines from Fox News to Teen Vogue.
Tlaib advanced the cause on Thursday, with a tweet that declared, “Everything outlined in the
#MuellerReport is further proof of what I’ve been saying for a long time: it’s #TimetoImpeach. The first step? The House Judiciary Committee launching an investigation into whether Trump committed impeachable offenses.”
Congresswoman Omar responded with an embrace of Tlaib’s message:
Impeachment is part of our constitutional responsibility. We have an obligation to investigate whether the President committed impeachable offenses, including:
– Obstruction of justice
– Violating the Emoluments Clause
– Abuse of power
Tlaib, Omar, and Ocasio-Cortez understand that they have many duties as members of the House. “Many know I take no pleasure in discussions of impeachment. I didn’t campaign on it, and rarely discuss it unprompted. We all prefer working on our priorities: pushing Medicare for All, tackling student loans [and working for] a Green New Deal,” explains AOC. “But the report squarely puts this on our doorstep.”
This demand is outlined in the Constitution—and that, as Elizabeth Holtzman reminds us, it can be highly effective when members of the Congress have the courage to propose a constitutional remedy:
As a junior congresswoman, the youngest ever elected at that time, I served on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach President Richard Nixon for the high crimes and misdemeanors he committed in connection with the Watergate cover-up and other matters. Thorough, fair, and above all bipartisan, the committee acted on solid evidence presented in televised hearings that riveted the nation, handing us the blueprint for how impeachment can be successfully pursued today. In our 225 years of constitutional democracy, the Nixon impeachment process has proven to be the only presidential effort that worked. Though Nixon resigned—the only president ever to do so—two weeks after the committee’s impeachment vote, he did so to avoid the certainty of being impeached and removed from office. We became a better nation for having held the president accountable.