Impeach and Expel Under the U.S. Constitution

Recently, I was speaking to a group in Aroostook County, Maine and the subject of impeachment came up. I said that each house can expel its members, but members of Congress cannot be impeached. My friend and fellow Patriot Jack McCarthy said that it was not true. So, let us investigate the subject.

The United States Constitution mentions impeachment in several places:

Article 1, Section 2 last clause “…and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment

Article 1, Section 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.”

Article 1 Section 3, Clause 7:

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law. And:

Article 2, Section 4

The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

There is some misunderstanding of the term “impeachment.”  It is akin to an indictment or a formal accusation but not a declaration of guilt. The House of Representatives, with a simple majority, votes to impeach and then the case is heard by the U.S. Senate. The first federal official to be impeached was William Blount, a U.S. Senator from Tennessee who was one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution. It took place on July 7, 1797. The next day, the Senate voted to expel him. Blount engaged in a plot to give land to England.

Congress has the power to expel members:

Article 1, Section 5  Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two thirds, expel a member.

Portrait of Blount

The Senate never tried the impeachment case against Blount because he had already been expelled. A resolution introduced in the Senate saying that Blount was a civil officer and subject to impeachment was defeated by a 14-11 vote. Since then, not one member of Congress has been impeached but five members of the House and 15 Senators have been expelled. Seventeen of them were expelled for supporting the Confederacy, and only two since the Civil War:  Mike Myers of Pennsylvania and Jim Traficant of Ohio. Myers was recently indicted for voter fraud.

There have been three presidents impeached:   Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. All were acquitted by the Senate. Trump was impeached twice. The second impeachment was such a sham that Chief Justice Roberts refused to participate. Richard Nixon resigned before articles of impeachment were brought against him.

 Federal Judges

Article 3, Section 1, The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behavior.

There have been fifteen federal judges including Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, who was acquitted, that were impeached and only eight were convicted by the Senate and removed from office. The first being John Pickering of New Hampshire in 1804 for mental instability, and intoxication while on the bench.  In 1989, Judge Alcee Hastings of the Southern District of Florida was impeached and removed for accepting bribes, but the Senate did not disqualify him from office. He was a member of Congress from 1993 until his death last year.


Alcee Hastings

So, I was wrong to say that members of Congress cannot be impeached, and my friend Jack McCarthy was right. But only one member of Congress has been impeached.  While nineteen states-Rhode Island being the only one in New England-have provisions to recall state elected officials, they cannot recall members of Congress. However, the founders gave us frequent elections. While impeachments, expulsions and recalls are rare, we can fire and replace our employees at all levels of government at the ballot box.