Impeachment Inquiry: A conversation with Dr. Richard Barke, Georgia Tech public policy professor

Georgia Tech Public Policy professor Dr. Richard Barke weighs in on the announcement to begin a formal impeachment hearing for president Donald Trump. Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the decision to begin the inquiry on Sept. 23.

Courtesy of Dr. Richard Barke

Georgia Tech Public Policy professor Dr. Richard Barke weighs in on the announcement to begin a formal impeachment hearing for president Donald Trump. Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the decision to begin the inquiry on Sept. 23.

Tyler Jones

Dr. Richard Barke is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech. The Southerner contacted Dr. Barke to ask about the impeachment inquiry process and  what young potential voters should take away from it.

From a public policy standpoint, is it legal for the president to withhold aid even after being authorized by Congress?

That’s always difficult. There is alway some discretion in terms of when and how much to hold back. There was a law that was passed back in 1974 that limits the power of presidents to not spend money Congress appropriates. Congress has always tolerated that up to a point, recognizing that the president might have information about world events or about whether this is the right time to be spending money on a program, but only up to a point. That’s largely a political question rather than a legal question: How much wiggle room does a president have? The 1974 law basically said to president Nixon, who was doing this quite a bit, that you can only do these rescissions if you send us a message telling us why you are not spending the money. Of course Nixon’s response, like any president’s response, was ‘Congress, you don’t get to tell me what I have to do; that’s a violation of separation of powers.’ I think for the most part that presidents have been pretty restrained in not spending money without consulting the leadership of Congress … Whether the withholding from Ukraine was politically-motivated or whether there was some legitimate reason for it, that’s going to come out with the impeachment process, I imagine.

Do you think the Department of Justice’s response to the inquiry complicates the process for House Democrats?

Yes. Throughout American history it has been a bit ambiguous who the Department of Justice actually works for. It’s been widely accepted throughout our history that the attorney general is not the president’s personal attorney. But the Department of Justice is sometimes in a difficult position because it is a part of the executive branch, yet they are supposed to act somewhat independently. In previous impeachment episodes, at least with Nixon and Clinton, I think the Department of Justice did a good job of walking that fine line. There’s some evidence that the current attorney general is not as interested in walking that fine line but things remain to be seen.

One of the most important points is something like this is a really large perturbation. On the one hand, it is interesting that students of politics observe how the system responds to that, how resilient the system is, what parts of the system start to look weak when something this massive happens. Sometimes, we see that the system responds extremely well. We saw this in Watergate when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon had to turn over his tapes and that included Nixon’s nominee … Sometimes, the system responds to events in ways that surprise us. That will make some people happy and it will upset some people.

Do you think everything happening means that Democracy is working or that Democracy is broken?

I hate to answer it this way but it depends on what happens. Some people would say that the fact that we have gotten to this point means that there hasn’t been sufficient push back on things people think Trump is doing to misbehave and that our system has been failing. The question is at what point does our democratic system say ‘Now that’s far enough to take action.’ And then when it takes action, does it overreact? It depends on your point of view. Personally, I’ve been saying for a couple of years now to the people that I know were upset about the way things were going just to be patient. If you are upset about the way things are going and if you think things are going too far, then the system will respond. I think that’s probably what’s going on now.

Will this help or hurt Joe Biden?

Joe Biden has been having some trouble anyway; he has been dropping somewhat in the polls, especially relative to Elizabeth Warren. Joe Biden, throughout his career, has had the problem of sometimes saying things that were inappropriate. Of course President Trump says things quite frequently that are inappropriate, but we are dealing with different standards here. I think overall, it is not going to be helpful to Biden. To the degree that he has a message about his presidency that he wants to get out, it’s going to  be really hard to get that message out and have people listen to it with this going.

Do you think Nancy Pelosi has strategically waited to launch an impeachment inquiry or was solely pushed by the Ukrainian phone call?

One thing that people can agree on about Nancy Pelosi, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, is that she is an amazing congressional strategist. She understands Congress extremely well. If she was hesitating, [to announce an impeachment inquiry] she was anticipating how Congress was going to act, both the House and the Senate. If she is finally taking action presumably the status quo that she was judging has changed significantly. Whether she had no choice or this is an opportune time to do something that she has always wanted to do all along, I don’t know if we can answer that.

What should a young voter take away from the announcement of an impeachment process?

I am teaching a freshman class in politics, and we were just talking about that. I can reflect back on that because I was a college student here at Georgia Tech during the Watergate era, and I can remember what I was learning during that process. On a day-to-day basis, I learned that things can get really weird. You start to hear things that sound like they would only happen in the movies, but sometimes, real life is weird. Overall, I ended up with an enormous amount of respect for all three branches of government.

When Gerald Ford came in after Nixon’s resignation, one of the first things that he did was pardon Richard Nixon. That infuriated a lot of people, but in terms of promoting the public interest, what Ford did was the best thing. The quote that he used when he pardoned Nixon was ‘Now the long national nightmare is over; it’s time to move on.’ That showed that the system was working. When Congress, even Republican members of the House and Senate, made it known that they would vote to impeach and then convict Richard Nixon, that was the system working. When the Supreme Court ruled that the president had to turn over the tapes that was the system working.

I think for young people today, I would urge them to not pay attention to the day-to-day noise. It’s going to be fascinating; it will be a wonderful television drama for some people. But ultimately, they should reserve all of their judgement towards this until near the end. 

If you had to give advice to young people as they are trying to understand this process, what would you tell them?

Dig deeper than what you are going to hear on the television or see on the news summaries online. There are a lot of working parts to the government system that will be important to hear, but they are not going to be reported in the news. So if you really want to know what’s going on, you’re going to have to dig deep on your own. Withhold your judgement as to whether the system is working or not until we have given it a chance to work.

How should younger voters digest breaking news documents like the Mueller report, and most recently, the whistleblower’s complaint when it comes to staying politically informed?

The ideal response: read the actual reports. Don’t rely on characterizations from even the most well-intentioned, most neutral (as you consider them) news sources or public officials. These are documents of historical significance, and citizens — and maybe especially younger ones — need to trust their own judgment about the facts and inferences to be drawn.

The less-ideal response: read summaries if you must, but pay attention to multiple interpretations. Some sources are more comfortable than others, but it’s crucial to explore “the other side” with an open mind. Some people are experts at choosing words and narratives that are plausible but intended to lead to particular conclusions. You must read any non-original sources with that in mind.

History is important. If you’re serious about understanding the current controversy, devote some time to learning about previous political issues of similar importance. We can all learn from what’s been done before, how previous events were characterized, and how the eventual outcomes related to what people thought they knew at an early stage.