U.S. senators, struggling to craft rules for a trial that will make them appear judicious, have focused almost entirely on whether to call witnesses for President Clinton's impeachment trial. But there are more important matters that it is not too late to address, including the issue of whether the Senate, acting as the jury, should be sequestered.
Roughly one-fifth of the Senate appeared on television talk shows in each of the last two weekends. Indeed, they have been hitting the airwaves from the moment the House voted to impeach the president. Some of these senators have already violated their special oath to be impartial and so, in essence, have perjured themselves even as they are about to judge whether a president should be removed from office for perjury. However much the Senate trial is a political rather than a judicial exercise, enough of a judicial flavor remains that we need to take a page from court procedure and, in effect, sequester senators. The essential elements of sequestering would be:
* No significant Senate business. Those trying to counter fears that a prolonged trial will shut down the government have noted that the Senate could do regular business half the day and hold a trial the other half, or that Senate business can continue during extended periods in which the trial is adjourned. But too much Senate business is negotiated with the president and the executive branch. This president is already charged with obstruction of justice and witness tampering; Republican senators cannot simultaneously argue that he is neither credible nor trustworthy and also bargain with him about policy. Negotiations over legislation will leave the senators open to charges of extortion and fraud and the president open to charges of jury tampering. Any attempt to conduct serious Senate business will further de-legitimize the institution, the process and the outcome.
* No television interviews. Senators have already appeared on television announcing their judgments about evidence they have yet to receive. We cannot have the spectacle of jurors commenting on nightly television about the day's trial developments. As much as it will pain them to forgo the publicity and see the lights shine on ex-senators like Howard Baker, Alan Simpson and Sam Nunn, the senator-jurors must from this point on forswear public appearances and comment during the case.
* No speeches. Much of the nation has strong views on impeachment and removal, and many of these views have been publicly articulated. Speaking for a fee before a group that has taken, or even might take, a public position on impeachment should be viewed as the equivalent of selling one's vote. Even unpaid speeches could be seen as pandering for future campaign contributions. During the House Judiciary Committee debate, the majority argued that the president had obstructed justice, with the majority counsel arguing that Monica Lewinsky did not have to be told to lie since she knew what was expected of her. Using that same argument, do senators really have to be told what their potential contributors want when it comes to impeachment?
* No fund-raisers. Already a scandal, campaign fund-raising has either corrupted the workings of our government or generated the appearance that it has. Either way, it has increased the general cynicism about our political institutions. Fund-raisers during the trial will open senators to charges of vote-selling and lobbyists to charges of jury tampering. This may have the unfortunate consequence of leaving that one-third of the senators up for reelection in 2000 with a self-interested bias in favor of a speedy trial.
The president is on trial, but the Senate is also on trial. The four House Republicans who recently explained that their vote for impeachment should not be interpreted as their wanting the president removed from office epitomize the degree to which some House members impeached themselves even as they voted to impeach the president. Now we will see how the Senate acquits itself as it determines whether to acquit the president.
The framers of the Constitution, who understood politics so well, did not expect this country to be ruled by wise and good people. They established a system to protect us from the worst they could imagine. A partisan impeachment was something they envisioned and, not expecting better from the Senate, they demanded a two-thirds vote for conviction and removal.
It is not too late for the Senate to impose a gag rule on itself. Political sequestration is key to maintaining the decorum and legitimacy of the institution. We can even hope it will shorten the trial.