Senator Biden Ought to Read the Constitution

My brother's column today, Is Bush Ready to Talk Pullout?, contains the following pointer:

Adam Leech writes in the Portsmouth (Maine) Herald: “Presidential hopeful Delaware Sen. Joe Biden stated unequivocally that he will move to impeach President Bush if he bombs Iran without Congressional approval.

“Biden spoke in front of a crowd of approximately 100 at a Seacoast Media Group forum Thursday, which focused on the Iraq War and foreign policy. When an audience member expressed fear of another war with Iran, he said he does not typically engage in threats, but had no qualms about issuing a direct warning to the oval office.

“'The President has no authority to unilaterally attack Iran and if he does, as foreign relations committee chairman, I will move to impeach,' said Biden, which was followed by a raucous applause.

“Biden said he is in the process of meeting with constitutional law experts to prepare a legal memorandum saying as much, and intends to send it to the President.”

Small problem. The Senate doesn't initiate impeachments. Those have to come from the House of Representatives; the Senate's role is then to judge the merits of the impeachment.

Art. I, Sec. 2, Clause 5: The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.

Art. I, Sec. 3, Clause 6: The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.

Doesn't Biden — a long-serving Senator, and veteran of impeachment trials — know that by now? Was he misquoted, or is he stupid, or does he think we are?

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17 Responses to Senator Biden Ought to Read the Constitution

  1. phb says:

    You are right on the procedural issue, wrong on the politics.

    The democrats have the votes to impeach in the house if they think they will win. The question is whether they can convict in the Senate. If the votes are there Bush and Cheny would probably prefer to resign as Nixon did.

    It isn’t very likely that Biden would find the votes if the war was going well, the US has probably lost a capital ship or a large number of casualties or the Iranians have closed the Straits. Ergo, if Biden can find the votes its going to be a very compressed impeachment schedule.

  2. To the best of my knowledge, Dennis Kucinich has already put the articles of impeachment on the house floor.

    You don’t think Biden can ‘whip it’ and whip it good?

  3. David M. says:

    He could well mean, when he says “move to impeach”, that he would use the great respect he commands amongst his peers and the Democratic leadership to initiate impeachment procedures in the House.

  4. Why would members of Congress be expected to have much knowledge of the Constitution? It’s not like they need it in their day to day work; The parts of it which restrict their activities are scarcely being enforced.

    Why, I dare say that if the Senate did vote to bring charges of impeachment, and the House agreed to have them tried before it, the Supreme court would declare the matter non-judicable, the way it usually does when Congress decides to violate the Constitution in some procedural matter.

  5. This is the sort of situation where I think common sense should be applied rather than GOTCHA GOTCHA *HE’S* *AN* *IDIOT*!!!

    He probably meant, fornally, “introduce a resolution in the Senate calling for the House to begin impeachment proceeding.”

    Give the guy a break by assuming he poorly stated something when speaking off the cuff.

  6. michael says:

    I disagree: impeachment is so big and so important that it is one of the few areas where we should expect punctilious adherence to the rules, and where people should pick their words with great care.

  7. Michael, the context here isn’t a law lecture or an Op-Ed. It was a extemporaneous reply to a question, and politicians have to make that as a sound-bitey as possible. It turns out there’s a transcript of what Biden said:

    QUESTIONER: “I have a great fear that say you’re elected as the nominee of the party. Next August sometime during the summer, Dick Cheney and George are going to bomb Iran.”

    BIDEN: “Legitimate concern.”

    QUESTIONER: “What can you do about it?”

    BIDEN: “I am not one, who if you’ve observed me for some time, I am not one who’s engaged in excessive populist rhetoric. I’m not one that pits the rich against the poor. I’m not one who’s gone out there and made false threats against presidents about, and god love him he’s a great guy, I’m not Dennis Kucinich saying impeach everybody now. But let me tell you, I have written an extensive legal memorandum with the help of a group of legal scholars who are sort of a stable of people, the best-known constitutional scholars in America, because for 17 years I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

    “I asked them to put together [for] me a draft, which I’m now literally riding between towns editing, that I want to make clear and submit to the Untied States Senate pointing out the president has no authority to unilaterally attack Iran. And I want to make it clear, I want it on the record, and I want to make it clear, if he does, as chairman of the foreign relations committee and former chair of the judiciary committee, I will move to impeach him.”

    [APPLAUSE]

    I think it’s a valid assumption that as “former chair of the judiciary committee”, he KNOWS the Senate/House impeachment roles, and he simplified his answer for the audience.

  8. michael says:

    I don’t think the public is so stupid that it needs this simplified.

  9. Is that a falsifiable belief? That is, is there any reasonable evidence I could present to you that would convince you that you’re wrong?
    I think the trump card is Al Gore / Internet.

  10. michael says:

    That is a genuinely interesting question. I formed my opinion about the basic smarts of the voting public while doing retail politics many years ago. Then again, I haven’t done much recently. I suppose doing it again and having a very different experience would certainly shake my confidence.

    My sense of the majority of the electorate is that is has other things on its mind most of the time: family, jobs, bills, maybe a church or a club, friends. It’s not thinking about politics much. It does fall for soundbites, and it suffers enormously when the media is monolithic (as so much of it has been due to consolidation in the last 20 years); the absence of alternate voices makes it so very easy to accept that if everyone on TV/Radio is saying something it’s likely true.

    Thus, I think the electorate is badly informed, not stupid. Which is why I think it’s so important to give it accurate info on as much as possible, and especially the biggest issues of the day.

    But what sort of test would allow us to falsify this belief? Maybe make a large group listen to a respected figure explain the real facts about Social Security and see what they thought?

  11. michael says:

    Consider also how ordinary people behave on juries, both grand and petit: pretty sensibly almost all the time. (Yes, there are exceptions; nothing’s perfect.)

  12. In juries, the people are carefully and thoroughly educated to the best of experts’ ability before deliberating.

    Note the test isn’t: If you sit down with someone and give them a lesson in US Constitutional law, can they understand it? I’m not arguing most people can’t.

    Rather, I’m saying that if a politician is taking a question on the fly, with some complicated procedural details, will they suffer to the public or not if they take the time to explain the details in their answer?

    Just think about how John Kerry got raked over the coals for answering at length. Or recently how Hillary Clinton was absolutely pilloried for giving a less than simplistic answer on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. I would put those forth as evidence that Biden’s reply is better for the context than being pedantic.

  13. michael says:

    I don’t think that it’s asking for anything that complex to say that politicians on the hustings (or elsewhere) shouldn’t promise to do precisely what the constitution says they cannot do, especially about big deal issues like impeachment. Simplify ok. Falsify, no.

  14. There is where I’m advocating to cut him some slack – I don’t think “I will move to impeach”, off the cuff, is horrendously false as a gloss on “I will introduce a motion in the Senate calling for the House to begin impeachment proceedings”, or even “I will officially call in the Senate for his impeachment”. He can do that, and the details can be explained if it happens.

  15. US Senate says:

    You do what we say and we do what the Unitary Executive says. Got it? So go buy yourself some duct tape and plastic wrap for your windows and cower in fear until we say it’s useful for you to do otherwise. And stop questioning our judgment. We know what we’re doing. Really, we do. Just keep taking stupid MySpace surveys like a good little consumer, and we’ll see to it that every year you have lots of new colors to choose from when you sign up for a credit card. Everything is going as planned. Really, it is.

  16. Brett Bellmore says:

    “In juries, the people are carefully and thoroughly educated to the best of experts’ ability before deliberating.”

    No, they’re treated like mushrooms, kept in the dark, and fed bullsh*t. Lied to about their right to engage in nulification, and a major, perhaps deciding part of many trials is the fight, kept out of the jury’s eyes, over what facts the jury will be permitted to know. It is scarcely unheard of for jurors to emerge from this artificially maintained ignorance, having voted to convict, find out what the trial was really about, and be horror struck at the injustice they’ve been tricked into helping perpetrate.

  17. Brett Bellmore says:

    “In juries, the people are carefully and thoroughly educated to the best of experts’ ability before deliberating.”

    No, they’re treated like mushrooms, kept in the dark, and fed bullsh*t. Lied to about their right to engage in nulification, and a major, perhaps deciding part of many trials is the fight, kept out of the jury’s eyes, over what facts the jury will be permitted to know. It is scarcely unheard of for jurors to emerge from this artificially maintained ignorance, having voted to convict, find out what the trial was really about, and be horror struck at the injustice they’ve been tricked into helping perpetrate.

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