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NHPR's Civics 101 Podcast Tackles Impeachment

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Impeachment is something we're hearing a lot about in the news. But where are we actually in the process? What's the difference between impeachment and an impeachment inquiry? And how helpful is it to compare what's happening now to impeachments past?

NHPR has a podcast for that. It's called Civics 101.

NHPR's Peter Biello sat down with Civics 101 co-host Nick Capodice to learn more. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

So typically Civics 101, the podcast you host with Hannah McCarthy, isn't as responsive to the news as it has been with this impeachment inquiry. Something inspired you about this?

Yeah. One of our biggest things that we fight for in the podcast is to make it a nonpartisan podcast, to explore systems versus the political things of the day. But there was so much talk about what's happening with impeachment that we felt we had to explore it to make sure we just get a few things right for everyone to know.

So let's start with the key distinction about the impeachment process. The difference between impeachment and removal from office. What's the difference there?

So impeachment does not mean removal from office. Impeachment is just the process of the House to go to the Senate later for a trial. So the person is impeached in the House with a bare majority vote. If 51 percent of the House votes for impeachment, that president, that judge is impeached. Only two presidents have been impeached. Clinton was impeached. Johnson was impeached. But they were not removed from office.

They were acquitted by the Senate in the trial that comes after impeachment

Right. The Senate is where the trial happens. And a two-thirds majority has to vote for those articles of impeachment for the official to be removed from office.

So if someone is impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, what happens after the conviction? What are the penalties?

The only penalty is removal from office and you're disqualified from holding any future office.

And so where do rules like that come from? Are they spelled out in the Senate? In the House? In the Constitution? Where are they?
 
The Constitution in Article 1 and Article 2 have the rules for impeachment. But it's very spare. There are not a lot of words in the Constitution about impeachment. The rules for the process are defined by the House and the Senate, respectively.

So where are we in the process right now?

The most recent report from the Congressional Research Service lays out three big steps for impeachment in the House, not in the Senate. Step one is an initiation of the process. Step two is an investigation of the process, which is run by the House Judiciary Committee. And step three is the vote, when the House votes whether or not to impeach. We are currently in the middle of the first and second step. Pelosi kind of did steps one and two at the same time. She announced an official impeachment inquiry and referred six agencies, including the Department of Justice, to conduct that investigation.

So what is happening Thursday? There's going to be a vote on Thursday. Does that mean that the investigation part of this process is over?

It does not. It does not mean this investigation part is over by any stretch. To be clear, this vote coming up on Thursday is not whether or not to impeach Donald Trump. This vote is do you — all here in the House, simple majority needed — want to do this investigation, this official inquiry into impeachment? What it does is it just sort of legitimizes the process a little bit more, even though it hasn't been done for impeachments of federal judges in the past. This big step has been skipped. It's not in the Constitution. It's not in the House rules. The Congressional Research Service has not done a report on the process of an impeachment inquiry. It just has to be initiated. And what I didn't know is that almost every president since Truman has had this process started by someone in Congress writing a bill or resolution to have a president impeached. It just never got to that second phase.

So what does it take to get to that second phase? Political will?

I think it is. Well, my big takeaway when I was making this episode is something one of our guests, Dan Cassino, said, which is it looks like a trial. You've got a judge up there in fancy robes and you have impeachment managers, which are members of the House who are asking questions and presenting evidence. And the president has his or her own lawyers defending the president. But it's not a trial. It is a purely political process. Dan said if the people want it, it's going to happen. If the people don't want it. It's not going to happen. So you, dear American, have a lot more power in this process than you do in a lot of others, by making your voice known to your elected representative that you're for it or you're against it.

You can listen to this or any other episode of Civics 101 wherever you get your podcasts or at civics101podcast.org.