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 TIME on politics Congressional Quarterly CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Storypage, with TIME and Congressional Quarterly

Transcript: Opening statement of Rep. Nadler

House Judiciary Committee hearing, December 10, 1998

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (R-New York): Thank you Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Chairman, today for only the third time in our nation's history, this committee meets to consider articles of impeachment against the President of the United States. This is a momentous occasion, and I would hope that despite the sharp partisan tone, which has marked this debate, we can approach it with a sober sense of the historic importance of this matter.

I believe we need to get back to basics: the Constitution and what the impeachment power conferred on the congress requires of us. Article II Section 4 of the Constitution says that a president, "Shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

We have received testimony from some of the nation's leading scholars and historians, who agree that impeachable offenses are those which are abuses of presidential power that undermine the structure of functioning of government or constitutional liberty.

Benjamin Franklin called impeachment, "a substitute for assassination." It is in fact, a peaceful procedure for protecting the nation from despots by providing a constitutional means for removing a president who misuses presidential power to make himself a tyrant or otherwise to undermine our constitutional form of government.

To impeach a president, it must be that serious. The history of the language is also clear. At the Constitutional Convention, the committee on style, which was not authorized to make any substantive changes, dropped the words, "against the United States" after the words, "high crimes and misdemeanors" because it was understood that only high crimes and misdemeanors against the system of government would be impeachable. That the words "against the United States" were redundant and unnecessary.

History and the precedents alike, show that impeachment is not a punishment for crimes, but a means to protect our constitutional system. And was certainly not meant to be a means to punish a president for personal wrongdoing not related to his office.

Some of our Republican colleagues have made much of the fact that some of the Democrats on this committee in 1974, voted in favor of an article of impeachment relating to President Nixon's alleged perjury on his tax returns. But the plain fact is that a bipartisan vote of that committee, something we have not yet had in this process on any substantive question, rejected that article.

That's the historical record, and it was rejected largely based on the belief that an impeachable offense must be an abuse of presidential power, a great and serious offense against the nation, not perjury on a private matter.

I have heard it said tonight that perjury is as serious an offense as bribery. That it is equivalent to bribery, a per se, impeachable offense. But bribery goes to the heart of the president's conduct of his constitutional duties. It converts his loyalties and efforts from promoting the welfare of the republic to promoting some other interest.

Perjury is a serious crime. And if proven, should be prosecuted in a court of law. But it may or may not implicate the president's duties and performance in office. Perjury on a private matter, perjury regarding sex, is not a great and serious offense against the nation. It is not an abuse of uniquely presidential power, it does not threaten our form of government.

The effect of impeachment is to overturn the popular will of the voters as expressed in a national election. We must not overturn an election and remove a president from office except to defend our very system of government or our constitutional liberties against a dire threat. And we must not do so without an overwhelming consensus of the American people and of their representatives in congress of the absolute necessity.

There must never be a narrowly voted impeachment or an impeachment substantially supported by one of our major political parties and largely opposed by the other. Such an impeachment would lack legitimacy, would produce divisiveness and bitterness in our politics for years to come. And will call into question the very legitimacy of our political institutions.

The American people have heard all the allegations against the president, and they overwhelmingly oppose impeaching him. The people elected the president, they still support him. We have no right to overturn the considered judgment of the American people. There are clearly some members of the Republican majority who have never accepted the results of the 1992 or 1996 elections and who apparently have chosen to ignore the message of last month's election. But in a democracy, it is the people who rule, not political elites, and certainly not those members of political elites who will not be here in the next election and the next Congress having been repudiated at the polls. Some members of this committee may think the people have chosen badly; but it is the people's choice and we must respect it absent the fundamental threat to our democratic form of government that would justify overturning the repeated expression of the people's will at the ballot box.

Members of Congress have no power, indeed they have no rights, to arrogate to themselves the power to nullify an election absent such a compelling threat. We have also received testimony from some outstanding former prosecutors, including the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld, who headed up the criminal division of Ronald Reagan's justice department, who compelling explained why all of the loose talk about perjury and obstruction of justice would not hold up in a real prosecutor's office, that the evidence that we have been given would never support a criminal prosecution in a real court of law.

For those who demand that the president prove his innocence rather than his accusers having to prove his guilt, or even to state clearly the specific charges, we received answers from Mr. Ruff yesterday and from Mr. Lowell this morning in which they meticulously pointed out using Mr. Starr's own work -- how the charges were not supported and were indeed contradicted by the evidence of Mr. Starr's own office had assembled. In fact, Mr. Starr has stated in his referral to Congress that his own star witness is not credible except when her uncorroborated testimony conflicts with the president's, and then it proves his perjury.

We have received sanctimonious lectures from the other side of the aisle about the rule of law, but the law does not permit perjury to be proved by the uncorroborated testimony of one witness nor does the law recognizes corroboration, the fact that the witness made the same statement to several different people. You may choose to believe that the president was disingenuous, that he was not particularly helpful to Paul Jones' lawyers when they asked him intentionally vague questions, or that he is a bum. But that does not make him guilty of perjury. This committee, this House, is not a grand jury. To impeach the president would subject the country to the trauma of a trial in the Senate. It would paralyze the government for many months while the problems of Social Security, Medicare, and a deteriorating world economy, and all our foreign concerns fester without proper attention.

We cannot simply punt our duty to judge the facts to the Senate if we find mere probable cause that an impeachment offense may have been committed. To do so would be a derogation of our constitutional duty. The proponents of impeachment have provided no direct evidence of impeachable offenses. They rely solely on the findings of a so- called independent counsel who has repeatedly mischaracterized evidence, failed to include in his report exculpatory evidence, and consistently misstated the law. We must not be a rubber stamp for Kenneth Starr.

We have been entrusted with the grave and awesome duty by the American people, by the constitution and by history. We must exercise that duty responsibly. At a bear minimum, that means the president's accusers must go beyond hearsay and innuendo and beyond demands that the president prove his innocence of vague and changing charges. They must provide clear and convincing evidence of specific impeachable conduct. This, they have failed to do.

If you believe the president's admission to the grand jury and to the nation of an inappropriate sexual relationship with Miss Lewinsky and his apologies to the nation were not object enough, that is not a reason for impeachment. Contrition is a remedy for sin and is certainly appropriate here. But while insufficiency of contrition may leave the soul still scarred, unexpiated sin proves no crimes and justifies no impeachments.

Some say that if we do not impeach the president, we treat him as if he is above the law. Is the president above the law? Certainly not. He is subject to the criminal law, to indictment and prosecution when he leaves office like any other citizen whether or not he is impeached.

SENSENBRENNER: The gentleman's time has...

NADLER: I ask one additional minute.

SENSENBRENNER: Without objection.

NADLER: Thank you.

And if the Republican leadership allows a vote, he would likely be the third president in U.S. history and the first since 1848 to be censured by the Congress. But impeachment is intended as a remedy to protect the nation, not as a punishment for an errant president.

The case is not there. The proof has not been put forward. The conduct alleged -- even if proven -- does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. We should not dignify these articles of impeachment by sending them to the full House.

To do so would be an affront to the Constitution and would consign this committee to the condemnation of history for generations to come.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Investigating the President


Friday, December 11, 1998

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