The Opportunity Cost of Impeachment

On May 23, 2019, in a weekly press conference, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stated that “we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” as a response to concerns that pursuing an impeachment proceeding against President Donald Trump would steal focus and time away from the House’s primary role: legislation. This language was meant to express that House Democrats would be able to work with Trump on bills such as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement (USMCA) while still investigating him for impeachable offenses. Today, Trump signed the USMCA, replacing an aging NAFTA deal, after it was approved by the Senate 89-10, coming two weeks after Trump signed a trade agreement with China. At the same time, Trump finds himself the subject of an impeachment trial that is ongoing in the Senate, seemingly validating Pelosi’s prediction to be true.

However, the evidence seems to indicate that the 116th Congress (the one currently in session) is struggling with productivity, based on publicly available data sources. As of January 28, 2020, with more than half of the 2-year term completed, only 113 laws have been successfully enacted, putting them well behind pace to keep up with previous sessions of Congress. In comparison, the previous 115th Congress which ran from January 3, 2017 to January 3, 2019 enacted 443 laws during its 2-year term. Additionally, the majority of laws tend to be passed earlier in congressional terms so that representatives can spend the end of their term campaigning for re-election. At this pace, this session of Congress will fall significantly behind previous sessions over the last 20 years.

Source: govtrack.us

According to congressional records, the House and Senate spent more than 20,000 hours on impeachment issues over the last year, involving hundreds of speeches, more than 10 votes, and special sessions of the Intelligence, Judicial, and Rules committee. Congressional salaries alone from that amount of time account for more than $1.7 million in taxpayer costs, excluding the costs of aides and operating infrastructure. Time that arguably could have been better spent on enacting new laws for the American people.

Naturally, it is the solemn constitutional duty of the House to to possess the sole power of impeachment, in order to provide a layer protection to the American people in case a duly elected president commits such terrible offenses that make them unfit for office. Its a panic button that can be used if the situation gets that bad, an emergency exit from a burning building.

To prevent abuse of the process, removal of a president from office requires a resolution passed by the House with a majority vote, followed by a Senate trial and supermajority vote to convict and remove the president from office. The underlying principle is that a duly elected president cannot not be whimsically removed from office by an opposing party simply because they disagree with their decisions.

The practical matter of requiring a supermajority in the Senate is a consideration for the impeachment trials of both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump; in both cases, the scenario where an actual removal from office occurs is extremely unlikely. In the case of the impeachment trial of Richard Nixon, where the evidence was compelling and the president had neither popular nor congressional support, a removal scenario was much more realistic – Nixon realized this and submitted his resignation prior to the completion of the trial.

Impeachment is an arduous and time consuming process that causes divisions within Congress and leeches away time that could be spent improving the lives of Americans. Both the Clinton and the Trump impeachment proceedings were huge resource drains on Congress, consuming hours and hours of time from publicly elected officials, an expensive fire drill that leeches away valuable resources that could have been spent on improving the lives of American interests.

The shortest way to do many things is to do only one thing at once.

Samuel Smiles