Congressman Henry Hyde on the Rule of Law





DECEMBER 18, 1998


Mr. Speaker, my colleagues of the people's House: I wish to talk to you about the rule of law.

After months of argument and hours of debate, there is no need for further complexity.

The question before this House is quite simple.

It is not a question of sex. Sexual misconduct and adultery are private acts and none of Congress's business.

It is not a question of lying about sex.

The matter before the House is a question of lying under oath. This is a public act.

This is called "perjury."

The matter before the House is a question of the willful, premeditated, deliberate, shameless corruption of the nation's system of justice.

Perjury and obstruction of justice cannot be reconciled with the Office of the President of the United States.

That, and nothing other than that, is the issue before us.

The personal fate of a President is not the issue. The political fate of his party is not the issue. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is not the issue.

The issue is perjury - lying under oath. The issue is the obstruction of justice, which the President has sworn the most solemn oath to uphold.

That oath constituted a compact between the President and the American people. That compact has been broken. The people's trust has been betrayed. The nation's chief executive has shown himself incapable of enforcing its laws, for he has corrupted the rule of law by his perjury and his obstruction of justice.

That, and nothing other than that, is the issue before this House.

We have heard ceaselessly that even if the President is guilty of the charges in the Starr referral, they don't rise to the level of an impeachable offense. Just what is an impeachable offense? One authority (professor Stephen Presser of Northwestern Law School) said that "Impeachable offenses are those which demonstrate a fundamental betrayal of public trust; they...suggest the federal official...has deliberately failed in his duty to uphold the Constitution and laws he was sworn to enforce."

And so we must decide if a President - the Chief Law Enforcement Officer in the land - the person who appoints the Attorney General, and the only person with a Constitutional obligation to "take care that the laws are faithfully executed" - can lie under oath, repeatedly, and maintain that is not a breach of trust sufficient for impeachment?

The President is the trustee of the nation's conscience - as are we here today. There have been many pyrotechnics in our Committee hearings on the respective role of the House and the Senate. Under the Constitution, the House accuses, and the Senate judges. True, the formula language of our articles recites the ultimate goal of removal from office but this language doesn't trump the Constitution which defines the separate functions, the different functions of the House and Senate. Our Founding Fathers didn't want the Body that accuses to be the same one that renders final judgment and they set up the additional safeguard that a two-thirds vote for removal is required. So despite their protests, our job is to decide if there is enough evidence to submit to the Senate for a trial - that's what the Constitution says, no matter what the President's defenders say.

When Ben Franklin, on September 18, 1787 told a Mrs. Powel that the Founders and Framers had given us a Republic "if you can keep it", perhaps he anticipated a future time when bed-rock principles of our democracy would be mortally threatened - as the Rule of Law stands in the line of fire today.

Nothing I can think of more clearly illustrates that America is a continuing experiment - never finished - that our democracy is always a work in progress than this debate today - for we sit here with the power to shape and reconfigure the charter of our freedom, just as the Founders and Framers did. We can strengthen our Constitution by giving it content and meaning, or weaken and wound it by tolerating (and thus encouraging) lies under oath and evasions and breaches of trust on the part of our Chief Executive.

The President's defenders in this House have rarely denied the facts of this matter. They have not seriously challenged the contention of the independent counsel that the President did not tell the truth in two sworn testimonies. They have not seriously attempted to discredit the facts brought before the Committee by the independent counsel. They have admitted, in effect, "He did it." But then they have argued that this does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. This is the "so- what" defense - whereby the Chief Executive, the successor to George Washington, can cheapen the oath, and it really doesn't matter.

They suggest that to impeach the President is to "Reverse the result of a national election" - as if Senator Dole would become President. They propose novel remedies, like a Congressional censure, that may appease some constituents and mollify the press, but which betray a lack of seriousness about the Constitution, the separation of powers, and the carefully-balanced relationship between the Congress and the President that was wisely crafted by the Framers. A resolution of censure, to mean anything must punish, if only to tarnish his reputation - and we have no constitutional authority to punish the President.

As you know, we have been attacked for not producing fact witnesses. But this is the first impeachment inquiry in history with an Office of Independent Counsel in place, and their referral to us consisted of 60,000 pages of sworn testimony, grand jury transcripts, depositions, statements, affidavits and video and audio tapes. We had the facts - under oath - we had Ms. Lewinsky's heavily corroborated testimony under a grant of immunity that would be revoked if she lied - we accepted that and so did they, else why didn't they call her and any others whose credibility they questioned, as their own witnesses? No, there was so little dispute on the facts they called no fact witnesses and have even based a resolution of censure on the same facts!

Let us be clear: The vote that all of us are asked to cast is, in the final analysis, a vote about the rule of law.

The rule of law is one of the great achievements of our civilization. For the alternative to the rule of law is the rule of raw power. We here today, are the heirs of three thousand years of history in which humanity slowly, and at great cost, evolved a form of politics in which law, not brute force, is the arbiter of our public destinies.

We are the heirs of the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic law: a moral code for a free people who, having been liberated from cruel bondage, saw in law a means to avoid falling back into the habits of slaves.

We are the heirs of Roman law: the first legal system by which peoples of different cultures, languages, races, and religions came to live together in a form of political community.

We are the heirs of Magna Carta, by which the freemen of England began to break the arbitrary and unchecked power of royal absolutism.

We are the heirs of a long tradition of parliamentary development, in which the rule of law gradually came to replace the royal prerogative as the means for governing a society of free men and women.

We are the heirs of 1776, and of an epic moment in human affairs when the Founders of this Republic pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor - sacred honor - to the defense of the rule of law.

We are the heirs of a hard-fought civil war, which vindicated the rule of law over the appetites of some for owning others.

We are the heirs of the 20th century's great struggles against totalitarianism, in which the rule of law was defended at immense cost against the worst tyrannies in human history. The "rule of law" is no pious phrase from a civics textbook. The rule of law is what stands between all of us and the arbitrary exercise of power by the state. The rule of law is the safeguard of our liberties. The rule of law is what allows us to live our freedom in ways that honor the freedom of others while strengthening the common good. The rule of law is like a three-legged stool: one leg is an honest judge, the second leg is an ethical bar, and the third is an enforceable oath. All three are indispensable to avoid political collapse.

In 1838, Abraham Lincoln celebrated the rule of law before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, and linked it to the perpetuation of American liberties and American political institutions:

"Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution never to violate in the least particular the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap - let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges - let it be written in primers, spelling books, and almanacs - let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice."(1)

My colleagues we have been sent here to strengthen and defend the rule of law - not to weaken it, not to attenuate it, not to disfigure it while seeking an extra-legal and extra-constitutional solution to the threat posed to the Republic by a presidential perjurer.

This is not a question of perfection; it is a question of foundations.

This is not a matter of setting the bar too high; it is a matter of securing the basic structure of our freedom, which is the rule of law.

No man or woman - no matter how highly placed, no matter how effective a communicator, no matter how gifted a manipulator of opinion polls or winner of votes - can be above the law in a democracy.

That is not a counsel of perfection; that is a rock-bottom, irreducible principle of our public life.

There is no avoiding the issue before us. We are, in one way or another, establishing the parameters of permissible presidential conduct. In creating a presidential system, the framers invested that Office with exceptional powers. If those powers are not exercised within the boundaries of the rule of law - if the President breaks the law by perjury and obstructs justice by willfully corrupting the legal system - then that President must be removed from office. We cannot have one law for the ruler, and another for the ruled.

This was, once, broadly understood in our land. If that understanding is lost, or if it becomes seriously eroded, the American democratic experiment and the freedom it guarantees, is in jeopardy.

That, and not the fate of one man, or one political party, or one electoral cycle, is what we are being asked to vote on today.

In casting our votes, we should look, not simply to those privileged to work in this chamber with us, but to the past and to the future.

Let us look across the river, to Arlington National Cemetery, where American heroes who gave their lives for the sake of the rule of law lie buried.

And let us not betray their memory.

Let us look into the future, to the children of today who are the Presidents and Members of Congress of the 21st century.

And let us not crush their hope that they, too, will inherit a law-governed society.

Let us declare, unmistakably, that perjury and the obstruction of justice disqualify a man from retaining the presidency of the United States.

There are a mountain of details which are assembled in a coherent mosaic in the Report - it reads like a novel, only it's non-fiction - it really happened and the corroboration is compelling. Read the Report and be convinced.

What we are telling you today are not the ravings of some vast right-wing conspiracy, but a reaffirmation of a set of values that are tarnished and dim these days, but it is given to us to restore them so our Founding Fathers would be proud.

It's your country - the President is our flag bearer, out in front of our people. The flag is falling my friends - I ask you to catch the falling flag as we keep our appointment with history.


1. Abraham Lincoln, "Address to Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838," in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 (New York: The Library of America, 1989), p. 32.