Juan Cole argues today in “Informed Comment” that the recent disclosure of conversations between President Bush and (conservative) Spanish Prime Minister Aznar before the invasion of Iraq--in which Bush declared that if the UN Security Council went against him he would invade Iraq anyway, and nixed Anzar's suggestion that Saddam Hussein be allowed to escape from Iraq with a billion dollars and confidential military documents--constitute an impeachable offense .
Whether or not these are impeachable offenses, it has long been clear that Bush will not be impeached. The votes are not there and we would have endure an endless debate on whether Bush has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” (as opposed to ordinary, garden variety war crimes) and worry about what to do with Cheney. The Democrats have long made clear that the prospects of success are nil, while the prospects of impeachment raising a shitstorm that would poltically besmear the Democrats are great. This is obviously a pity, since Bush will avoid the removal from office he so richly deserves.
Impeachment, as the history of the practice in New York State shows, is a blunderbuss, a cumbersome and prolonged process rarely invoked, and rarely successful.
New York State, like all the states, has some provision for impeachment, and I believe that impeachment in New York State works like the federal process, with impeachment in the lower house and trial in the upper.
Someone shared with me recently the following list of New York State officials who have been impeached in New York State since statehood in 1777. It’s not a particularly long or imposing list:
1) John C. Mather, State Canal Commissioner, 1853.
2) George Washington Smith, Judge, 1866.
3) Robert C. Dorn, State Canal Commissioner, 1868.
4) George G. Barnard, State Supreme Court Justice 1872.
5) George Milton Curtis, Marine Court Justice, 1874.
6) Horace G. Prindle, Sup. Ct. Justice, 1874.
7) William Sulzer, 1913, Governor
Other than a flurry in the 1860s and 1870s, perhaps in emulation of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, it has been a rarely used political weapon in New York State, and most of those who have been impeached were obscure figures. Corruption in the building and running of the Erie Canal was a frequent problem, particularly in the period, through the 1880s, when the canal was in effect a government run transportation system, collecting tolls and fees from shippers. And I have no idea why these various judges were impeached, though between the Tweed Ring and light-fingered members of the Grant Administration, it was the time, as Mark Twain said, of the “Great Barbeque.”
This leaves the last and most famous New York State impeachment, when William Sulzer, an otherwise obscure German-American lawyer from Greenwich Village, who had been made by governor by Tammany, and who broke with Tammany (with support from upstate anti-Tammany Democrats, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt), and then in turn was broken by Tammany, impeached and convicted of violations in campaign financing (of which he was probably guilty) and then returned to the obscurity from whence he came.
All of this underscores the difficulty with impeachment. It really is only effective when someone (President Johnson, Governor Sulzer) has lost the support of his own party. Otherwise, the supermajoritarian hurdles generally prove too high to vault. (Unless your only concern, as with Bill Clinton’s fellation follies, is to embarrass and not remove your object of impeachment.) And the divided control of the state legislature, with the Dems in the assembly and the GOPs in the senate, assure that impeachment will be an unused weapon for the forseeable future. There are other procedures for the removal of politicians accused of crimes (primarily, as with Alan Hevesi, resignation and/or indictment), while political sins (which should be the real target of impeachment) go unpunished. In New York State, as in the federal government, impeachment is a check and balance than neither checks nor balances. Perhaps a sign of the return of genuine democracy to New York State would be some discussion on the revival of impeachment power.