Since Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into President Trump on September 24, there has been a lot of chatter about how a hypothetical impeachment trial would work, which Republicans (if any) would turn on the President, and if it’s even a valid investigation.
However, all of this avoids focusing on an arguably more important discussion: how will impeachment affect the passage of unrelated congressional bills and how will it politically impact congresspeople?
Let’s start with the assumption that is the status quo; the House is engaged in an impeachment inquiry. The likely outcome is easy to predict: passage of legislation will probably grind to a halt. It happened before during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and Trump is already threatening to counter bipartisan legislation. Even if the President weren’t flexing his veto powers due to the pending inquiry, it’s still unlikely anything large would be passed. Impeachment is a very taxing activity for the House that sucks up almost all political oxygen, asphyxiating many partisan and bipartisan bills.
On to what would follow the passing of articles of impeachment in the House: the Senate trial. This would again kill most bills being debated in the Senate, though since the Senate is basically the “graveyard” of Congress, that wouldn’t be much of a change. Senate nominations would likely be delayed, but not rejected, so long term impacts would be few. However, a bigger issue would be the political capital that the White House would have to use with Republican senators. It’s almost certain that Senate Republicans would vote to acquit the President. Nonetheless, depending on the severity and pervasiveness of the evidence presented, the White House might have to use varying degrees of arm-twisting to avoid an embarrassing Republican rebellion or—however unlikely—removal from office, potentially handing more leverage to dissenting Republicans in the Senate.
If the trial in the Senate results in an acquittal, the President would almost definitely claim vindication from the accusations, regardless of the margin. A 65-35 vote for removal is just as much a victory as 80-20 for acquittal in the eyes of the President and his political base. However, a vote for acquittal with a significant number of Republican senators splitting off would signal a large political defeat for the President with a crack splitting his base and increased difficulty passing bills through the Senate in the future.
For the representatives and senators who voted on impeachment in one way or another, the results would be very black and white. Democrats who voted “no” would likely be under some pressure in a primary from the left, especially those from liberal states or districts. If the evidence for impeachment is compelling, then they would probably face pressure from the whole party and independents as well. Already 55% of voters support an inquiry right now, and that number would likely grow for impeachment should the evidence be strong. However, those who voted “yes” from swing districts and conservative districts could find themselves fiercely challenged from the right. Basically, Democrats from right-of-center districts could be tested from both sides. For Republicans, the choice is almost equally dire; pro-impeachment Republicans would face calls to leave the party (Justin Amash, anyone?) due to Trump’s high approval amongst the GOP, whereas those who voted against his removal or impeachment could come under fire from independents and Democrats, depending on how convincing the evidence behind articles of impeachment is.
As we can see, the main effects of impeachment would likely further the partisan divide; driving each side further into their own camp, the continued attacks on congressional moderates in swing districts furthering deadlock an already unproductive Congress. Who would politically “win” an impeachment trial? The impeachers or the President? Could it tip the congressional or presidential elections in 2020 one way or another? It’ll all depend on how well the case is built, though for now, only time will tell.