Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., a member of the House of Representatives so Constitutionally-minded that he wrote a book on the subject, responded as a founding father would have to the news that President Bush had commuted the 30-month prison sentence of former White House insider I. “Scooter” Libby.
How so? By calling for consideration of the impeachment of the president for abusing the pardoning – and the related commutation of sentences — privileges of his office.
“In her first weeks as leader of the Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi withdrew the notion of impeachment proceedings against either President Bush or Vice President Cheney,” announced Jackson. “With the president’s decision to once again subvert the legal process and the will of the American people by commuting the sentence of convicted felon Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, I call on House Democrats to reconsider impeachment proceedings. Lewis Libby was convicted of lying under oath to cover up the outing of active, undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame. It is beyond unthinkable that the president would undermine the legal process to protect a man who engaged in treason against the United States government, threatening the security of the American people. In November’s election, voters put Democrats in charge of Congress because they believed our pledge of oversight and accountability. Now it’s time for us to honor that pledge. The Executive Branch should be held responsible for its illegalities. Our democratic system is grounded in the principle of checks and balances. When the Executive Branch disregards the will of the people, our lawmakers must not be silent. Today’s actions, coupled with the president’s unwillingness to comply with Senate and House inquiries, leave Democrats with no other option than to consider impeachment so that we can gather the information needed to achieve justice for all Americans.”
The founders were exceptionally clear on the question of what should be done if a president abuses his privilege to pardon an associate, or by extension to commute the sentence of an aide.
James Madison, who is rightly referred to as “the father of the Constitution,” wrote extensively about the times in which impeachment would be necessary. “[If] the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty,” observed the man whose notes provide the essential outline of the deliberations of the Constitutional convention.
Madison’s Virginia compatriot, George Mason, who was an even more ardent advocate of impeachment, was similarly concerned about abuses of the power of the president to keep the law from touching his associates. The man now remembered as “the father of the Bill of Rights” feared that a future president might attempt to shield himself by preventing the prosecution or jailing of an aide who could testify to the president’s involvement in a high crime or misdemeanor.
Mason suggested that impeachment would surely be in order were a president to attempt “to stop inquiry and prevent detection” of wrongdoing within his administration — as the Bush White House is currently doing with its use of executive privilege to undermine congressional investigations of the politicization of federal prosecutions. Equally, the thoughtful founder suggested, impeachment would be in order were a president might to “pardon crimes which were advised by himself” — as Bush has essentially done with the commutation of the sentence of his own former counselor and the chief of staff of his vice president.
The prosecution of Libby brought out the details of Cheney’s deep involvement in the scheming to discredit a critic of the administration, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, whose wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA operative. And it is impossible to imagine that Bush was unaware of the manipulations in which Cheney and Libby engaged. Unfortunately, the precise nature of the president’s involvement would only have become clear had Libby chosen to testify openly and honestly in court or before the Congress — a prospect dramatically reduced by Bush’s commutation of the sentence.
Mason said at the time of the Constitutional convention, in a summer 220 years ago, that: “No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued.”
His point was that, if a president could not be impeached, he could not be held to account. To neglect the demand of that accountability, especially in moments when abuses became clear, Madison suggested “might be fatal to the Republic.”
Congressman Jackson, who has studied more seriously than most the call of the founders, has responded as they intended. In demanding that impeachment be put back on the table, he is not attacking Bush, Cheney or Libby. Rather, he is defending the Republic in precisely the manner that Mason, Madison and their contemporaries intended.
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