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Nancy Pelosi overstates Republican gains in impeachment process
House Republicans voted unanimously against a resolution that laid out how the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump would proceed. In an interview with "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert later that day, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her party had been more than fair.
"You would have thought that the Republicans would all vote for it, because it gave them more rights than we ever received in any of the other impeachment proceedings," Pelosi said Oct. 31.
We spoke with Pelosi’s staff to learn what she meant when she said the Republicans are getting more rights than Democrats got during the impeachments of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
The comparison is a bit convoluted to begin with, because while Democrats were in the minority during Clinton’s impeachment in 1998, Democrats were in the majority in 1974 for the impeachment of Nixon. That put them in a stronger position than the House Republicans are in today.
Pelosi’s claim that Republicans are getting more rights comes down to two measures: the number of lawmakers involved, and their power to call witnesses and ask them questions.
On the first, Pelosi’s staff say there are twice as many committees involved and so, twice as many minority party lawmakers.
That is accurate compared with past impeachments, however, compared with what has taken place so far, the resolution’s focus on the two committees means that several other committees will now play smaller roles. Many Republicans on committees such as Oversight and Foreign Affairs have been able to participate when key witnesses testified. They will lose that under this resolution.
For the Nixon and Clinton proceedings, all the action was in the House Judiciary Committee.
Under the just-passed resolution, duties are split between the Intelligence and Judiciary committees.
The Intelligence Committee conducts the investigation. The Judiciary then assesses whether those findings add up to an impeachable offense. The rules laid out in the House resolution and by the Judiciary Committee chair give Republicans equal time to question witnesses. It does so in more detail than in the Nixon and Clinton House resolutions.
Pelosi’s office said, compared with the past, more Republican members can participate, and everything the committees produce is shared equally.
"Intelligence Committee minority members are now not only able to question witnesses on equal grounds with Democrats, the resolution provides them the ability to call witnesses," they said in a statement. "Thus, twice as many committees and their respective minorities possess this subpoena power."
The ability to call witnesses is key, and Republicans have complained that they don’t get exactly what the minority party got during the Nixon and Clinton impeachments. We looked into this in a separate fact-check of a claim from Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
On paper, that’s somewhat accurate. In 1974 and 1998, members of both parties could call witnesses. Either side could object to a witness, in which case, the dispute would ultimately be resolved by committee vote. Today, the Republicans lack the power to challenge a Democratic subpoena.
The practical impact is less telling, because in the past as in the present, the majority party always has the votes to win at the committee level. Effectively, members of the minority party, then and now, have less subpoena power than the majority.
It’s worth noting that bipartisanship was in force during the Nixon impeachment, and these issues were not so contentious. The House resolution to start the inquiry passed 410 to 4. The Trump investigation resolution passed 232 to 196.
Sarah Binder at George Washington University said that the rules for calling witnesses, and thus the power to shape an inquiry, "changed markedly" since the Clinton hearings.
In 2015, Republicans rewrote the standing House rules and gave committee chairs the automatic right to subpoena witnesses. The most that would be needed would be to consult with the minority, not win their approval.
Binder said, "it would be a bit eye opening" if Democrats today rolled back the authority the Republicans established. The House, she said, has always been run by the majority.
"It's long been the nature of the beast," she said.
Pelosi said that Republicans get more rights today than Democrats had in past impeachments. Today, Republicans on two House committees can participate, rather than just one. But Pelosi’s focus on past impeachments downplays that Republicans on other committees will have less opportunity to participate than they enjoyed before the resolution passed.
Republicans also have less ability to use a committee vote to challenge Democratic subpoenas today than in 1974 and 1998. But practically speaking, the impact is minimal. The majority party can always win a committee vote if it wants to challenge the calling of a witness.
Ultimately, the differences are not large. In the House, the majority always has the edge. The Republicans now have slightly different options — most notably, there are more participants — than the minorities in previous impeachments. But that doesn’t give them much more say in the proceedings.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Nancy Pelosi, Oct. 31, 2019
U.S. Congress, H. RES. 660, Oct. 29, 2019
U.S. Congress, H.R. Res. 581, Oct. 7, 1998
U.S. Congress, H.R. Res. 803, 1974
U.S. Congress, H.Res.525 - Providing for a deliberative review by the Committee on the Judiciary of a communication from an independent counsel, and for the release thereof, and for other purposes, Sept. 10, 1998
Watergate.info, 1973-1974, accessed Nov. 3, 2019
State University of New York at Buffalo, Watergate Collection, 1974, 2007
Haithi Trust Digital Library, Impeachment inquiry procedures / Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, May 2, 1974
Congressional Research Service, A Survey of House and Senate Committee Rules on Subpoenas, Jan. 29, 2018
U.S. Congress, Deschler's precedents: Impeachment, accessed Oct. 31, 2019
Congressional Research Service, The Impeachment Process in the House of Representatives, Oct. 10, 2019
U.S. House of Representatives, Rules of the House of Representatives, Jan. 6, 2015
U.S. House of Representatives, Rules of the 116th Congress, Jan. 9, 2019
House Judiciary Committee, Impeachment Inquiry Procedures, Oct. 29, 2019
House Judiciary Committee, Impeachment Inquiry Protections for the President, Oct. 29, 2019
Politico, Dems blast House GOP subpoena rules change, Feb. 10, 2015
Office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, statement, Nov. 1, 2019
Email exchange, Sarah Binder, professor of political science, George Washington University
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