Thirty-four years ago this month, when the House Judiciary Committee was considering strategies for holding a lawbreaking president to account, the most determined advocate for impeachment on the committee was a relatively junior member, 45-year-old Michigan Congressman John Conyers.
On Friday, Conyers will again participate in a Judiciary Committee examination of how best to address excesses of the executive.
Again, the prospect of impeachment will be discussed.
This time, however, Conyers will not be playing the role of the young firebrand.
Rather, he will be chairing the session.
There is no small measure of historic significance in the fact that a man who the Nixon Administration placed high on its White House “enemies list” – labeling the congressman as the “black anti-Nixon spokesman” – now sits in the seat once occupied by white-haired and venerable New Jersey Congressman Peter Rodino during the heady days of the Watergate inquiry.
It is, to be sure, a different seat from the one from which Conyers first rose to identify and then tackle the high crimes and misdemeanors of a lawless administration.
As the committee chair, Conyers must balance the competing demands of House Democratic leaders who would prefer that impeachment never be mentioned with those of the millions of grassroots Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, independents and, yes, even a few Republicans who cannot understand who Congress has failed to defend the Constitution “against all enemies foreign and domestic.”
No serious observer doubts that Conyers has his heart in the right place. The only remaining member of the Judiciary Committee that went after Nixon who still serves on the committee has for the better part of a half century been the most steadfast defender of the system of checks and balances in the House.
Conyers introduced the first legislation calling for an inquiry into whether George Bush and Dick Cheney should be impeached. At his direction, the minority staff of the Judiciary Committee compiled what remains the most exhaustive detailing of the current administration’s wrongdoing. Even after Democrats retook control of the House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi took impeachment “off the table,” the committee chairman kept top staffers working on presidential accountability issues and maintained lines of communication with lawyers, scholars and organizers who have been battling the Bush-Cheney administration.
It has not always been easy. Conyers has felt pressure from both sides: from top Democrats who have determined (against the evidence of history) that challenging a lawless president and vice president might endanger the party’s electoral prospects and from activists who argue that a failure to challenge Bush and Cheney endangers not a political agenda but a republic.
On Friday, Conyers will strike a delicate balance.
The second most senior member of the House will lead the Judiciary Committee in putting impeachment on the table.
Key members of the House, including Kucinich, will argue that Congress must use every available means to address the high crimes and misdemeanors of the president. They will be supported by panels of lawyers, including Conyers’ former Judiciary Committee colleague Elizabeth Holtzman and former Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein, who will argue that impeachment at this point is not just an option but a necessity. Others will testify on bahalf of legislative remedies designed to constrain this and future administrations.
Speaker Pelosi and her allies have narrowed the range of options. They do not want a formal vote on the particular article of impeachment that Kucinich has advanced against Bush – or on the various other articles the former presidential candidate has proposed. That is both a pity and a problem. When Congress fails to act against presidential lawlessness, it sets a precedent that is difficult to undo – even with specific legislation.
But that does not mean that Friday’s hearing will be inconsequential.
Historians will long note the permanent record of a Judiciary Committee session that entertained serious discussion of whether President Bush and Vice President Cheney have committed high crimes and misdemeanors.
And, hopefully, they will do so as part of a broader examination of how John Conyers and others who regard the U.S. Constitution as more than just a piece of paper kept alive a respect for the principles of separation of powers and presidential accountability even when the political leaders and strategists of their own party told them not to mention the “i” word.
Against all odds, impeachment is on the table.
It is not the centerpiece that some would make it.
Those of us who regard the Constitution as having more meaning than a party registration card will continue to argue for a wider examination of what the presidency has become, a deeper debate and a fundamental renewal of the constraints of executive excess.
As we press our case, however, we would do well to recognize that, against great odds, John Conyers has created an opening that allows us to imagine and pursue that renewal.