Presidential candidate Herman Cain has made headlines for telling a group of bloggers that impeaching President Obama would be a "great thing." Without commenting on the merits of any impeachment, we wanted to point out further comments that Cain made about the Senate's role in impeachment that suggests he doesn't understand exactly how the process works.
Specifically (according to Politico):
"That’s a great question and it is a great — it would be a great thing to do but because the Senate is controlled by Democrats we would never be able to get the Senate first to take up that action, because they simply don’t care what the American public thinks. They would protect him and they wouldn’t even bring it up," Cain said, citing the administration's position on the Defense of Marriage Act as an impeachable offense.
… There are a number of things where a case could be made in order to impeach him, but because Republicans do not control the United States Senate, they would never allow it to get off the ground."
Read more: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0811/61518.html#ixzz1VLG1HM6V
Herman Cain's suggestion that the Senate Democrats "wouldn't even bring [an impeachment of President Obama] up" betrays a lack of understanding about the House and Senate roles in impeachment. Since one of the things this blog does is convey the complex elements of Senate procedure and history for the general public, and because impeachment is such an important thing to understand, we hope to shed some light on how the process actually works.
(1) Only the House can impeach.
While the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate are part of the same system, their roles are substantially different. Impeachment is solely the prerogative of the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives
introduces articles of impeachment (basically an indictment in the judicial sense), and members of the House serve as the "managers" of the impeachment. These managers gather evidence, present their findings to the Senate, and examine witnesses at trial.
(2) Only the Senate can try the impeachment.
The smaller size, longer terms, and more dignified character of the U.S. Senate makes it appropriate to act as the judge and jury. When the House is ready with the articles of impeachment, the Senate receives the House managers of the impeachment. At 1 o'clock on the day following the presentation of the articles by the House managers (or before by order of the Senate), the Senate will proceed to consider the articles and continue until final judgment has been rendered. Therefore, Senate Democrats can't just stop an impeachment from the House from gaining a proper trial in the Senate.
(3) It requires two-thirds of the members present to convict on an article of impeachment. The Constitution further requires that judgment be made on the basis of treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.
(4) When the President or the Vice President is on trial, the Chief Justice of the United States presides.
(5)The impeachment proceedings can be directed to a special committee, which will operate on the same procedures as a full impeachment trial unless ordered otherwise by the Senate.
(6)The Senate operates on 26 special rules that govern the impeachment trial process, which are clarified by several additional precedents.
Anyone who watches Senate proceedings regularly would be shocked at how differently the Senate acts as a court of trial. In the normal Senate, the job of presiding officer is usually delegated to a newer member. Senators come and go as they please and only mingle together during roll call votes. Those votes might take 15 minutes or more with Senators likely to signal their yea or nay vote to a clerk.
During an impeachment trial, the President Pro Tempore (the most senior member of the majority party, currently Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii) is more likely to preside. The Senate becomes shockingly quiet and dignified. In front of the dais where the prseiding officer, the clerks, and additional staff sit are two semicircular desks. On one side sit the House managers, acting as the prosecution. On the other side is the defense legal team. In front of each person is a glass of tall ice water. The Senate can issue subpoenas, and defense and prosecution alike can question witnesses and present evidence. A Senator wishing to present his or her own question must do it in writing through the presiding officer. All Senators must swear an oath.
When the vote on the first article of impeachment comes, Senators sit very somberly at their desks as the roll is called alphabetically. When a Senator's name is called, the Senator will rise from the desk, say "Guilty" or "Not Guilty," and sit back down. This process continues through each article of impeachment.
Senate impeachment proceedings are probably the most well-attended proceedings of the Senate. However, the Senate has excused Senators from attending before. In the trial of Alcee L. Hastings, a United States District Judge from Florida who is now a member of the House of Representatives and its Rules Committee, four members of the Senate who were in the House of Representatives at the time that the House voted on the articles of impeachment were excused.