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Washington Journal: Constitution Gives Congress The Right To Impeach

Washington, 11 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Only Congress has the power to impeach and remove an official from the executive branch or a jurist from the judicial branch of government. This power has been described as the ultimate check on executive and judicial authorities.

The Constitution says that Congress may remove a president, or other federal officer, from office upon impeachment for and conviction of, "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

Impeachment proceedings begin in the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. If a committee investigation supports the charges against an official, the committee files a resolution of impeachment which states the specific charges. The resolution would then go to the entire House for consideration. If a majority of the House approves the resolution, the official is considered impeached. However, impeachment alone is not enough to remove an official. The next step is conviction.

From the House, the bill of impeachment moves to the Senate, where the accused official is placed on trial. If the case involves the president or vice president, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court must preside. The trial is similar to a standard criminal trial, with the accused having the right to an attorney and present witnesses in his own behalf.

When the case has been presented, the Senate goes into closed session to debate guilt or innocence. There are 100 members of the Senate, and at least two-thirds of them must vote for conviction. Any result less than two-thirds means acquittal. Conviction brings automatic removal from office. There is no right of appeal.

Only once has a president been impeached by the House of Representatives. Andrew Johnson, who succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865, was charged with high crimes and misdemeanors. Following his trial in the Senate, the senators voted 35-19 to convict Johnson. His presidency was saved by one vote.

The specter of presidential impeachment was raised again in July 1974, when the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. He was accused of obstructing justice, abusing the power of president's office and being in contempt of Congress.

These charges were raised in connection with Nixon's re-election campaign of 1972 and subsequent allegations that Nixon used the White House to cover up a campaign finance scandal.

Nixon's case never reached the House floor. Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974 when it became clear to him that the House would vote to impeach.