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Impeachment ritual begins, perplexing Canadians more attuned to Parliament

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., meets with reporters to announce the House impeachment managers as she prepares to send articles of impeachment to the Senate against President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. With Pelosi from left are Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Pelosi, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.
Image Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
January 15, 2020 - 7:00 PM

WASHINGTON - For the third time in U.S. history, the president of the United States will stand trial in a uniquely American hybrid of judicial propriety and partisan politics, setting the sombre Senate ritual of impeachment on a collision course with Donald Trump's appetite for chaos.

After formally impeaching Trump in an explosive hearing last month, the House of Representatives finally named its team of managers Wednesday before voting 228-193 to dispatch the articles to the Republican-led Senate, triggering a solemn display of pomp and ceremony on Capitol Hill.

"This is about the constitution of the United States," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she introduced the seven Democrats tapped to prosecute the U.S. president on charges of abuse of power and obstructing Congress, a team led by California's Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee.

"He has been impeached; he's been impeached forever," Pelosi said. "They can never erase that."

As it plays out over the coming days and weeks, Canadians more familiar with the Westminster parliamentary system are in for a teachable moment of sorts, said Gerald Baier, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

"This provides the opportunity for a lesson in civics, and a better understanding of the differences between the two systems," Baier said. "That's a good thing."

Unlike in the U.S., where the functions of lawmakers are more independent of the executive branch, the electoral fortunes of members of Parliament or provincial legislatures are more directly tied to those of their party leader.

"The system naturally provides more discreet opportunities for that kind of review," Baier said. "The immediate pressure release valve of a bad executive is that their caucus might keep them, to some degree, in check."

And while it remains true that the Prime Minister's Office and cabinet wield a great deal of control and discipline over caucus, particularly when sitting as a majority government, the party's larger interests kick in at a certain point, he added.


"If you go a step too far — if there's criminal conduct, or abuse of power, or whatever — the party, in its own interests, has to lance that wound."

Baier cited as an example the clash within the Liberal party that erupted in the early 2000s, when Jean Chretien grudgingly ended his third term as prime minister under pressure from party members to make room for his challenger and political heir apparent, former finance minister Paul Martin.

"There was never any impeachable-style conduct on the part of the prime minister, but he announced his resignation ... on the basis that pressure had been brought to bear on him in caucus," Baier said.

"He was pushing the envelope in terms of what he could get away with at that point."

Minority governments can also be perilous for Canadian political leaders, as Stephen Harper learned in 2008 when an opposition coalition threatened to topple his Conservatives just six weeks into a minority mandate. Harper survived, thanks to a three-month prorogation of Parliament that provided time for the coalition to disintegrate.

But that's not the same thing as an impeachment "crisis," said Jacob Levy, a political theory professor at Montreal's McGill University. Rather, it's the Westminster system at work.

"There's no crisis at all when a minority government loses a confidence vote; there's just an election," Levy noted. "And the incumbent prime minister might well remain in that office," as Harper did in 2011.

Next week's impeachment trial in the Senate — it's expected to get underway Tuesday, since Monday is a holiday in the U.S. — will also feature some unfamiliar faces.

That includes Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, who is the only member of the team to have played a role in the other two impeachment proceedings.

She was a sitting member of Congress when Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 and worked for a member of the House judiciary committee as a law student during the proceedings against Richard Nixon.

Trump was impeached by the Democratic-led House last month for his role in the alleged push to convince Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden, and for allegedly obstructing the ensuing probe by Congress.

The president appeared unfazed Wednesday as he celebrated the signing of the first phase of a new trade agreement with China, just at the precise moment when the House was voting to transmit the articles of impeachment.

"They have a hoax going on over there, let's take care of it," he said, smiling, as he dispatched members of Congress to go take part in the vote. "It's not going to matter, because it's going very well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2020.

— With files from The Associated Press

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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