Back in March, we ran an insightful piece from R. Jordan Prescott to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Lewinsky scandal. Building on an earlier column about the general inefficacy of Congressional investigations, Prescott observed that the Republican Congress’s impeachment of President Bill Clinton traded substantive legislative progress—in particular, Social Security reform—for political gains that proved to be very short-lived.
With House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s Tuesday announcement that the lower chamber is opening an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden for shady business dealings, you’ve got to wonder if it is happening again. There are plenty of curious episodes and details in the Biden family’s doings that merit an explanation to the American people; yet setting the machinery of impeachment in motion ensures that legislative priorities will be shelved to secure, in the best-case scenario, an indictment that will be dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
McCarthy, a California Republican, is no dummy. Coverage of his announcement has focused on his efforts to consolidate control over his own caucus, which has taken on a threatening aspect over budget negotiations. A cannier eye would see something else: He is ensuring that 2020’s suppression of the Biden family’s malfeasance in the mainstream press is not repeated. There is no way for the media to avoid covering impeachment proceedings.
The question is whether it’s worth it. The three already ongoing Congressional investigations, along with the Department of Justice investigation of Hunter Biden, ensure that the questions aren’t going anywhere. An impeachment guarantees top billing for whatever comes to light, but the cordon sanitaire has already been breached. Even the New York Times has noticed there’s something up in the House of Biden. Meanwhile, there are a number of points on which Congress could make progress despite the divided government.
For the first time in years, the public’s attention has been captured by our already massive and ever-growing federal debt. The New York Times editorial board has sounded the alarm. The Atlantic is contemplating grim facts: “It turns out that the debt matters after all.” 57 percent of the American public think deficit reduction should be a top priority—a 12 percent leap over the prior year’s numbers. The likelihood of another Fed rate increase before the year’s end promises to keep the issue at the public’s front of mind. The GOP is in the rare position where a program of spending cuts would be a political winner. Set against a coherent and disciplined message of fiscal discipline—admittedly a tall order for a persistently chaotic and self-devouring party—even a government shutdown could prove to be only a temporary political setback, provided it secures real budgetary concessions.
Similarly, for the first time in a generation, there is an appetite for trimming the overgrowth of executive war powers. This March, on broadly bipartisan lines, the Senate ended the authorizations passed in 1991 and 2002 for the American operations in Iraq. There is bipartisan legislative momentum in both chambers for further rollbacks of the presidential powers granted during the Global War on Terror. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for undoing the first branch’s sweeping abdication of its constitutional responsibilities—a cause that not only is a political winner but also happens to be the right thing to do. A related initiative that could be tied to this renewed sense of legislative responsibility is the establishment of a special inspector general for American efforts supporting Ukraine.
Despite particular differences, both the White House and the GOP are committed to the protection and revival of American industry. Bipartisan efforts like the infrastructure bill and the CHIPS Act have proven that substantive action on industrial policy is not impossible in this divided government. Despite my own reservations about some of these programs, it is clear that Congress has the will to repair some thirty years of disastrous management of our industrial base and our trade policy.
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These are all preeminent concerns for the party and for the nation. Any progress on these fronts will come to a halt if the House moves forward with an impeachment.
There are two reasons for this. First, in the modern era, an impeached president’s party closes ranks, and there is no reason to think this time will be different. The unpleasant truth is that the GOP cannot do anything on its own when it controls only the House. Second—an often elided point—is the fact that running an impeachment is resource-intensive. Each House member has a limited amount of staff and time. An impeachment will effectively halt any work on the business of writing, refining, and whipping legislation. Even assuming the Democrats were not to become purely obstructionist, it seems unlikely that the House will have the wherewithal to move anything along.
Impeachment is distinct from a censure; it demands more of the legislature, and potentially has, at least on paper, more significant consequences. Perhaps Biden should be impeached and removed, but, barring some bizarre reconfiguration of the Senate, this is an impossibility. Justice is, in this case, the slave of expediency. McCarthy’s gamble makes a certain amount of political sense, but it is far from clear whether the payout will be worth the costs.