Congress's Record in Choosing Presidents

Antagonism between the President and Congress is built into the United States Constitution. Although Clinton's impeachment will be only the second in U.S. history, and no President has been removed from office as a result of impeachment; the House of Representatives has, in fact, directly chosen the President four times in American history. The results have not been good. The House of Representatives is worse at picking Presidents than the voters.

The first time the House of Representatives chose the President was in 1800. At that time, the President was the candidate who received the most electoral votes, and the Vice-President was the candidate who received the second most electoral votes. Thomas Jefferson was the Democratic-Republican candidate for President and Aaron Burr was his Vice-Presidential candidate. The Federalists nominated John Adams for a second term with his Vice-Presidential candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as the Vice-Presidential candidate.

The Democratic-Republican electors forgot to withhold one electoral vote from Burr, so when the final results were announced, the results were Jefferson and Burr, 73 electoral votes each; Adams, 65; Pinckney, 64; and John Jay 1. It then fell to the lame duck Congress, with its partisan Federalist majority, to decide the result. When no candidate gets a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives chooses the President. Each state has one vote, decided by a majority of its delegation, with a majority of the states needed for election.

To make a long story short, the Federalist House toyed with electing Aaron Burr, because they hated Jefferson so much. But in the end, after 36 ballots in all, Jefferson was elected President. It is well to remember that a lame duck House nearly elected Aaron Burr President rather than the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.

The second time the House of Representatives picked the President was in 1824. In a four way race for President between Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and William H. Crawford. Crawford, secretary of the Treasury under James Monroe. When the electoral votes were counted, Jackson had 94, Adams 84, Crawford 41 and Clay 37. In the popular vote, Jackson led with 41.34%; Adams had 30.92%; Clay had 12.99% and Crawford 11.17%.

Under the 12th amendment to the Constitution, when no candidate gets a majority of the electoral votes, the names of the three top contenders - Jackson, Adams and an ailing Crawford, were placed before the House. Clay's support was vital to the frontrunners.

Again, to make a long story short, Clay agreed to support Adams in exchange for being made Secretary of State. In those days, Secretary of State was considered the best stepping stone to the White House.

When the House met to vote, Adams was supported by the six New England states and New York, and in large part through Clay's backing, by Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Louisiana. So, Adams was elected on the first ballot with 13 of the 24 states in the union at that time. The "deal" with Clay cast a cloud on Adams administration from which it never emerged.

Four years later, Andrew Jackson ran for President again making much of his contention that the House of Representatives had thwarted the will of the people by denying him the presidency in 1825, even though he had been the leader in electoral and popular votes. In 1828, Jackson was elected with 178 electoral votes to Adams 83, and 55.97% of the popular vote. Jackson's popular vote total was the highest percentage until Theodore Roosevelt was elected President in 1904 on the heels of William McKinley's assassination. Jackson went on to win re-election in 1832.

The third time the House chose the President was in the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, Governor of New York, won the election with 50.97% of the vote. However, Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana; southern states then under Republican carpetbag rule, submitted two sets of returns. The House was called upon to decide who won the electoral votes from these three states.

For Hayes to become President by a 185-184 margin, he needed to win all 19 of the contested electoral votes. If Tilden won even one of the electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, he would have been elected president.

The Congress passed a law appointing a commission consisting of five House members, five Senate members and five Supreme Court Justices to decide the disputed electoral votes. The majority party (Democrats controlled the House and the Republicans controlled the Senate) was to have three members and the minority party two members of each delegation with two supreme court members each. The fifth supreme court member would be chosen by the other four.

To make another long story short, the commission awarded every disputed electoral vote to Hayes by a vote of 8-7, along strictly party lines. Civil War threatened. But Hayes agreed to withdraw federal troops from the south in exchange for the South agreeing to respect Negro rights. Hayes was elected President and kept his part of the bargain, but the South didn't keep theirs. For the next 20 years every presidential election margin was a plurality, razor thin margin.

The fourth time the House chose the President was in 1974, when it impeached Richard Nixon. Nixon's Vice-President, Spiro T. Agnew, was forced from office in 1973 for accepting bribes when he was Governor of Maryland. Under the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in the wake of John F. Kennedy's assassination, a vacancy in the office of Vice-President is filled when the President nominates and both Houses of Congress confirm by a majority vote.

Nixon nominated Gerald Ford, a member of the House of Representatives who was a member of the Warren Commission which investigated the assassination of John Kennedy. After Nixon resigned rather than be impeached, Gerald Ford became President and, in turn, nominated New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to be Vice-President.

When Ford ran for election in 1976, he dumped Rockefeller as his Vice-Presidential running mate and chose Kansas Senator Bob Dole to be his Vice-Presidential running mate. Ford lost to Jimmy Carter.

When Ford was President, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act, the law that provides for public funding of presidential campaigns with contribution and spending limits. Ford stated that he thought the law unconstitutional, but rather than veto it, he said he would let the Supreme Court decide. Thus Ford, the first appointed President in American history, threw away one of the major presidential powers, its co-equality with the judiciary. This is the major reason for the current crisis with Clinton. Ford was also the president to sign the first special prosecutor law.

One final note. The voters also have a role to play in government. The current impeachment drive is an insult to the voters whose judgements in the General Election are not being allowed to be considered in this vote.

Oliver North stood up before Congress and the television cameras dressed in his medal bedecked Marine uniform, raised his right hand, placed his left on the Bible, and lied to Congress and the American people. As a result, he was almost elected to the United States Senate (which at least shows the respect in which Congress is held and how seriously the voters take lying to congress.)

Caspar Weinberger, who spent his whole life as Reagan's budget director in California, as Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Defense in Reagan's Presidential administration, routinely taking notes in meetings and keeping diaries that filled drawers in his office; swore to Iran-Contra special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh that there were no notes when they were subpoenaed. He was prosecuted for purjery, but was pardoned by President Bush.

Now, the Republican majority in Congress would have you believe that President Clinton is guilty of a "high crime and misdemeanor" because he lied under oath to a Grand Jury. If Clinton is impeached, the 2000 presidential election is already over. Al Gore has won. Gore will have to be elected in order to preserve the voters' prerogative to choose their own representatives.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last time the Congress has tried to capture the Presidency. Only, in my opinion, this is going to be the most damaging, because by making "high crimes and misdemeanors" equivalent to any crime, all future Presidents are going to spend their entire terms fending off frivolous politically inspired law suits. We will be living in a worse police state than we already are.

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf