A Primer on Impeachment Procedures in the House
Ever since the Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 election, there has been a widespread discussion about the possibility that they might impeach President Trump. Some Democratic representatives are openly in favor of it. Others, including most of the leaders, have downplayed impeachment, often on strategic political grounds. While it is currently unlikely the House will move to impeach the president during the 116thCongress, the possibility of a presidential impeachment remains higher than at most times in American history.
Articles of Impeachment in the House
In most respects, impeachment follows the normal legislative process. The Constitution provides that the House shall have the “sole power of Impeachment” but does not further specify alternative procedures. In practice, House impeachments have taken the form of a simple resolution, adopted by the House in a simple majority vote. The impeachment resolution is accompanied by one or more articles of impeachment, laying out the charges against the officeholder.
Introducing Impeachment Resolutions
Any member can introduce a simple resolution providing for the impeachment of the president, vice-president, or other civil officers of the United States (which includes executive branch and judicial officers appointed by the president, but not military officers). Five such resolutions were introduced during the 115th Congress (four impeaching President Trump, one impeaching Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein). One such resolution has been introduced during the 116thCongress, to impeach President Trump. Such resolutions are referred to the Committee on the Judiciary for further action.
Members may also introduce resolutions calling for committee investigations into impeachment. These resolutions are referred to the Committee on Rules. If adopted by the chamber, they may provide a committee with additional authorities or funding beyond the basic committee investigatory powers granted by Rule XI of the House.
For example, during the Clinton impeachment in 1998, the House adopted a privileged resolution reported by the Rules Committee (H.Res. 525) that referred the communication from the independent counsel to the Committee on the Judiciary. Subsequent to that, the House adopted a privileged resolution reported from the Committee on the Judiciary (H.Res. 581) authorizing an impeachment inquiry and providing the committee additional authorities. After that inquiry, an actual impeachment resolution (H.Res. 611) was reported out of the Committee on the Judiciary as an original measure.
One such inquiry resolution has been introduced in the 116thCongress and would direct the Committee on the Judiciary to inquire whether the House should impeach President Trump. The resolution would also provide the committee with expanded deposition powers and additional funds for the inquiry. The resolution was referred to the Committee on Rules.
Impeachment resolutions are highly privileged in the House and thus supersede other pending business. Members may unilaterally offer impeachment resolutions from the floor as a question of privilege, which effectively denies the majority leadership the ability to prevent impeachment resolutions from reaching the floor (I discuss this in more detail here and here). This is how Representative Al Green, D-Tex., brought his impeachment resolutions (H.Res. 646 and H.Res. 705, 115th Congress) against President Trump to the floor during the 115th Congress, and how Representative John Fleming, R-La., forced his impeachment resolution against the IRS commissioner (H.Res. 828, 114th Congress) onto the floor during the 114th Congress. All three of these resolutions were disposed of before a vote on final passage.
No successful impeachment resolution has ever been adopted by the House after being offered from the floor by a member as a Question of Privilege. In previous cases of successful impeachment, resolutions containing articles of impeachment have been reported out of committee and then reached the floor either directly as privileged business, or via a special rule reported from the Rules Committee.
If no special order of business is adopted, an impeachment resolution would be considered under the general rules of the House, effectively providing only one hour of debate controlled by one member, who could move the previous question at the end of the hour. If adopted, this would effectively preclude any further debate or intervening motions except the motion to adjourn, table, or recommit. While the motion recommit is available, the germaneness rule has been held not to permit a motion to recommit proposing censure instead of impeachment. Separate votes may be demanded each Article of Impeachment contained in the resolution.
Debate and procedure might also be structured by a unanimous consent agreement. During consideration of the impeachment resolution against President Clinton (H.Res. 611), unanimous consent was reached to allow extended debate on the resolution, one motion to adjourn, and one motion to recommit.
Decorum rules in the House remain in effect during an impeachment debate, although “wide latitude” is permitted. Members must refrain from language that is “personally offensive” and from making comparisons to the personal conduct of sitting Members of the House or Senate.
What Happens Next?
Upon adoption of articles of impeachment, the House will adopt resolutions appointing managers, authorizing those managers to prepare for and conduct a Senate trial and to notify the Senate of the adoption of the articles of impeachment and the appointment of the managers. During the Senate trial, the House managers present evidence and arguments subject to the procedures adopted by the Senate.