By Dave Lindorff
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has refused since taking power in the House to let impeachment go anywhere in that body, recently said on "The View" that "If somebody had a crime that the president had committed, that would be a different story.”
All she would have had to do was watch a little of last Friday's hearing on impeachment in the hearing room of the House Judiciary Committee--a hearing she herself helped to arrange.
The dramatic and long delayed session chaired by Judiciary Chair John Conyers (D-MI) was both a staged farce, and at the same time, a powerful demonstration of the power of a grassroots movement in defense of the Constitution. It was at once both testimony to the cowardice and self-inflicted impotence of Congress and of the Democratic Party that technically controls that body, and to the enormity of the damage that has been wrought to the nation’s democracy by two aspiring tyrants in the White House.
As Conyers made clear more than once during the six-hour session, this was “not an impeachment hearing, however much many in the audience might wish it to be” He might well have added that he himself was not the fierce defender of the Constitution and of the authority of Congress that he once was before gaining control of the Judiciary Committee, however much his constituents, his wife, and Americans across the country might wish him to be.
At the same time, while the hearing was strictly limited to the most superficial airing of Bush administration crimes and misdemeanors, the fact that the session—technically an argument in defense of 36 articles of impeachment filed in the House over the past several months by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH)--was nonetheless a major victory for the impeachment movement. It happened because earlier in the month, Speaker Pelosi, who had sworn since taking control of the House in November 2006, that impeachment would be “off the table” during the 110th Congress, called a hasty meeting with Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Rep. Conyers, and Rep. Kucinich, and called for such a limited hearing.
So determined were Pelosi and Conyers to limit the scope and intensity of the hearing that they acceded to a call for Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to adhere to Thomas Jefferson’s Rules of the House, which prohibit any derogatory comments about the President, which was interpreted by Chairman Conyers as meaning no one, including witnesses or members of the committee, could suggest that Bush had lied or deceived anyone. Since a number of Rep. Kucinich’s proposed articles of impeachment specifically charge the president with lying to Congress and the American People, this made for some comic moments, with witness Bruce Fein, a former assistant attorney general under former President Ronald Reagan, to say he would reference his listing of crimes to the “resident” of the White House.
In the end, the rule imposing a gag on calling the president a criminal fell by the wayside, with witness Vincent Bugliosi. A former Los Angeles deputy district attorney, accusing Bush of being guilty of the murder of over 4000 American soldiers and of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians because he had “lied” the country into an illegal and unnecessary war, and with committee member Shirley Jackson Lee (D-CA) suggesting that the president may have committed treason in invading Iraq, and that he appeared to be preparing to do it again with an unprovoked invasion of Iran.
Conyers also acquiesced in a Republican effort to minimize public monitoring and involvement in the hearing, allowing the minority party to fill most of the available seats in the hearing room with office staffers who showed little interest in the proceedings. Only a few dozen of the hundreds of pro-impeachment activists who had come to the Rayburn Office Building at 7 am in order to get seats in the Judiciary Committee hearing room were allowed in, with the rest having to remain in the hall or go to two remote “overflow” rooms to watch the proceedings on a TV hookup. Conyers also went along with a call by Republican members of the committee to have some of those who did make it into the hearing ejected simply for wearing buttons on their shirts calling for impeachment (the Republican members referred to these as “signs”), though such small personal tokens are routinely allowed in congressional hearing rooms.
It was clear that this was to be a tightly controlled and strictly limited hearing.
It was also clear that it was intended to go nowhere.
At one point, after hearing witnesses like Fein, Bugliosi, former representative and Nixon impeachment committee member Elizabeth Holtzman, former Salt Lake City mayor and impeachment activist Rocky Anderson, former House Clinton impeachment manager Bob Barr, former Watergate Committee counsel and current senior counsel of the Brennan Center for Justice Frederick A.O. Schwartz, and Elliott Adams, president of the board of Veterans for Peace, lay out the administration’s crimes and abuses of power—which included charges of usurping the legislative powers of Congress, violating international treaties, war crimes, lying to Congress, an illegal war, felony violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Fourth Amendment, defying Congressional subpoenas, obstruction of justice and more, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chair of the Constitution subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, appeared convinced that the abuses were real and serious.
Former Rep. Holtzman responded, “The real remedy to a president who believes he is above the law is impeachment. There is no running away from that.” She said, “An impeachment inquiry, handled fairly, could work. Maybe I’m a cockeyed optimist, but I believe it could work.”
The basic point, made by Holtzman, by Fein and by many others, including this writer, is that worrying about the political opposition to impeachment, both in the House, and in the Senate, not to mention among the broader public, is completely wrongheaded. Even when impeachment articles were first filed against Nixon, the public and the bulk of the Congress were against the idea. It was during the hearings that the tide turned, as evidence of malfeasance, criminality and abuse of power became evident through hearing testimony. The same would happen in the case of President Bush and/or Vice President Cheney. Most Americans don’t even know that the president made up evidence to justify the war against Iraq out of whole cloth. They don’t know what the Geneva Conventions are with regard to torture. They don’t know why Congress passed the FISA act, which Bush has been feloniously violating to spy on them (it was passed because Nixon was using the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without judicial warrants!). They don’t know the Bush has been refusing to enact laws passed by the Congress. Public hearings by an impeachment panel would make all these high crimes and misdemeanors clear on national TV to all sentient Americans. Moreover, as Holtzman pointed out, the president would not be able to use the claim of “executive privilege” to withhold testimony from aides in an impeachment inquiry, the way he has done when they have been subpoenaed by other House and Senate committees. Impeachment would be about violations of the very executive actions he would be claiming privilege on. As well, an impeachment committee, unlike any other committee of the Congress, is specifically sanctioned and empowered in the Constitution, meaning that even strict “constructionist” Federalists on the bench would have a hard time backing presidential obstruction.