Those familiar with contemporary progressive politics are very likely aware of MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group. What some folks may not remember, however, is the origin of the organization’s name.
In 1998, then-President Clinton was caught up in the Lewinsky scandal, which Republicans used as the basis for an impeachment crusade. Polls showed much of the American mainstream opposed impeachment and supported the president, but there was nevertheless a widely held impression that Clinton’s misdeeds warranted some kind of formal rebuke.
A progressive email group began circulating a petition urging the Republican-led Congress to “censure President Clinton and move on.” In other words, Congress could scuttle the impeachment nonsense, vote on a legislative reprimand, and the country could finally turn the page on the whole mess.
GOP lawmakers, we now know, ignored the suggestion and impeached the president, but the email group truncated its subject line and became MoveOn.org.
Sixteen years later, the idea of censuring a Democratic president is apparently making a comeback of sorts. Sahil Kapur reports this morning:
Impeachment has faded in Republican circles as an option to punish President Barack Obama over his sweeping executive actions to reshape immigration enforcement, ruled out even by hardliners like Rep. Steve King (R-IA) who are livid with the president and want to retaliate.An alternative that has gained some traction among Republicans is to “censure” the president. The idea has been endorsed by King and Rep. Raul Labrador, both influential GOP voices on immigration issues. National Review writer John Fund has been pushing it for months.
The differences between 2014 and 1998 are fascinating to me. Under Clinton, when impeachment appeared likely, censure was pushed by the left as a moderate substitute. Under Obama, with impeachment appearing unlikely, censure is now embraced by the right, looking for a pound of flesh for their troubles.
Of course, the more important difference is that Clinton really was guilty of personal wrongdoing, while Obama’s apparent crime is being the subject of irrational Republican hatred.
That said, we can apparently expand the menu of options for GOP lawmakers who are apoplectic about the president governing on immigration without them. As of last week, there was no shortage of alternatives – impeachment, shutdowns, defunding schemes, refusing to allow Obama to deliver a State of the Union address – and this week, it appears we have one more option to keep an eye on.
But before this train leaves the station in earnest, it’s worth noting that there is no actual legal mechanism that allows Congress to formally censure a sitting president. From the TPM report:
“If you can put together in the abstract a resolution that does nothing more than express disapproval, I think it’s possible for Congress to do that. But you can’t do more than that,” said Michael J. Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, who has written a law review article exploring the issue. “I think any impact beyond expression would pose a constitutional problem for the attempted censure.”Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe said a congressional resolution to censure a president is not clearly authorized by the Constitution, “so a strict constitutionalist would say that it’s an action beyond the authority of Congress.” […]“[A] censure resolution is obviously punitive both in purpose and in effect and would thus appear to constitute a kind of ‘trial by legislature” outside the ambit of impeachment and accordingly might be deemed a ‘Bill of Attainder’ forbidden by Article I, §9, Clause 3,” Tribe said in an email.
It’s probably a minor detail, but let’s emphasize for a moment that there’s no reason to believe Obama did anything wrong, making all of this talk about formal rebukes a little bizarre.
As Brian Beutler reminded Republicans two weeks ago, “just because right-wingers are blind with rage doesn’t mean Obama’s immigration action is illegal…. It turns out that the laws on the books actually don’t say what you might think they say. “