When Gerald Ford was a member of the House, he defined an impeachable offense as “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” In other words, impeachment and conviction by Congress is a political punishment, not a criminal one.
1. What constitutes an impeachable offense?
The founders intentionally kept the term “high crimes and misdemeanors” vague, because impeachment is meant to be a political act, not a legal one. Unlike in criminal law, there are no clear rules for evaluating when a president has stepped over the constitutional line.
The founders rejected the term “maladministration” as grounds for impeachment. They didn’t want a president tossed out simply because Congress didn’t think he was doing a good job. Alexander Hamilton said impeachable offenses were those that involved abuse of public trust. The term is generally understood to mean abuse of office that results in harm to the public.
The House impeached Andrew Johnson in 1868 during a fight over reconstruction after the Civil War. Most of the articles of impeachment accused him of violating a federal law, since repealed, that said a president could not remove certain officials without Senate approval.