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Nixon's Forgotten Impeachable Crime

by Steve Chapman

The 1974 House Judiciary Committee was looking for conduct that subverted the Constitution
On July 30, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee convened to debate articles of impeachment against President Nixon. The tide was running against him. Thanks to the Watergate scandal, his approval rating was down to 29 percent. He was facing a Supreme Court order to turn over tapes of White House conversations he had tried to keep secret. The previous day, the committee had approved articles accusing him of obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

Now, the committee had to consider a third article, holding him accountable for defying a congressional subpoena. After a debate, the members narrowly approved it. They proceeded to reject an article claiming that Nixon usurped the powers of Congress by carrying out a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia. Then, with a prime-time national TV audience watching, the committee turned to the final article, dealing with Nixon's underpayment of federal income taxes and acceptance of government-financed improvements on his homes in California and Florida.

This was no small matter. During his first term, Nixon somehow managed to pay only modest amounts to the Internal Revenue Service. There was a simple explanation, it turned out: When he donated his vice presidential papers to the National Archives, he and his lawyers backdated the gift to circumvent a change in tax law. After an IRS investigation and a review of his returns by the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation, Nixon was ordered to pay $467,000.

This episode provoked public outrage, and Nixon's more vociferous critics regarded it as a serious offense. Here, ordinary citizens were presented with the spectacle of the head of the executive branch breaking the law to avoid paying the taxes needed to finance the operations of government -- a violation likely to erode not only public confidence in their leaders but compliance with tax laws. In filing a 1040 form, the taxpayer attests to its accuracy under penalty of perjury -- and Nixon's form was grossly inaccurate.

Some Democrats argued that by arranging the federally paid improvements at his private residences, Nixon not only enriched himself but violated the Constitution, which says that aside from his salary, the president "shall not receive ... any other emolument from the United States."

But the Judiciary Committee didn't buy it. Some members questioned whether Nixon was aware of the fraud, but the consensus on the committee was simply that the matter didn't rise to the level of impeachable conduct. Said Illinois Republican Tom Railsback, who voted for the first two articles of impeachment, "I suggest there's a serious question as to whether something involving his personal tax liability has anything to do with his conduct of the office of the president." Every Republican voted no.

No fewer than nine of the 21 committee Democrats took the same view. "I don't find this an abuse of power," said Jerome Waldie of California. Utah's Wayne Owens agreed: "I believe Mr. Nixon knowingly underpaid his taxes ... and knowingly had improvements made on his home. But these offenses don't rise to the level of impeachability." Robert Drinan of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal members of the House, voted for all of the other articles but opposed this one.

Attorney Richard Cates, who was senior associate special counsel to the committee, says the tax charge stirred little interest among the members. "Many of them didn't pay that much attention to it," he recalls. "They were looking for conduct that subverted the Constitution."

In their brief against President Clinton, the House impeachment managers insist that if he is not removed for his alleged perjury and obstruction of justice in a civil case about personal behavior before he took office, then impeachment will be a dead letter: "The bar will be so high that only a convicted felon or a traitor will need to be concerned."

But it's his critics, not his defenders, who want to change the standard. What was good enough for Nixon, they suggest, is too good for Clinton. In Nixon's case, the Judiciary Committee concluded, in a bipartisan vote, that ordinary violations of the law didn't warrant the use of this formidable weapon. Removing a president who has been chosen by the American people was something to be reserved for abuses of his position as president.

Republicans had no trouble with that proposition in 1974. But in 1974, impeachment was about preserving our constitutional order, not about destroying political enemies by any means available. It was a different world, a long time ago.


© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor January 18, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)

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