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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, pictured on Oct. 31, 2023, is the latest politician to face the threat of impeachment.PETE MAROVICH/The New York Times News Service

For much of United States history, impeachment was a rarely deployed procedure, a tool so potent it was left unused for decades at a time.

No longer.

This week, a Montana congressman filed articles of impeachment against U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, accusing him of providing aid to enemies by failing to down a Chinese surveillance balloon immediately. Mr. Austin, who is being treated for cancer, has already been under fire for being hospitalized for days without notifying the White House. A day later, a congressional committee held its first impeachment hearing on Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, whom Republicans hold responsible for “a reckless abandonment of border security and immigration enforcement.”

Republicans in the House of Representatives have already authorized a separate impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, saying he has overseen “a complete and total invasion at the southern border.”

Although Donald Trump was subjected to the process twice during his presidency, a member of the U.S. cabinet has not been impeached since 1876, when the House voted unanimously against secretary of war William Belknap for “basely prostituting his high office to his lust for private gain.” (He resigned, and was acquitted by the Senate.

But impeachment, a powerful process designed to remove politicians who pose an imminent danger to the country, has become an increasingly common feature of politics in a country whose Congress is marked by deep divisions and sclerotic lawmaking.

The U.S. Constitution reserves impeachment for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours. The House of Representatives can impeach with a simple majority, but only the Senate can convict, with a two-thirds vote. Few expect the current impeachment attempts to lead to convictions, which would require the support of a large number of Democratic senators. It’s not even clear Congress can successfully impeach its current targets, given the narrow Republican hold on the House of Representatives.

“So it’s basically posturing,” said Brian Kalt, a professor of law at Michigan State University who has written about impeachment.

“They’re barking at squirrels knowing they can’t actually catch them. It makes it costless for them to bark,” he said. “And I think we can expect to see this pattern continue as long as polarization is the way that it is.”

Impeachment was conceived of as a unique check on power – one Thomas Jefferson called “the most formidable weapon for the purpose of a dominant faction that was ever contrived.”

It was designed at a very different time in American politics. Presidents were not constrained by term limits. U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures, not elected by the general public. The Senate, as a result, was less overtly partisan than it is today.

Impeachment provided states with the power to dismiss a president or other office-holder who posed a threat.

“The point was, you have the chance to remove people before the next election, because keeping them in power is a danger to the state,” said Timothy Naftali, an associate professor of history at New York University and co-author of Impeachment: An American History.

Political disputes were never meant to be grounds for seeking someone’s removal. “If you follow the Constitution, you can’t impeach somebody for a policy you don’t agree with,” Prof. Naftali said. “That’s not what the impeachment process was designed for.”

But impeachment has always been an exercise of power. In 1843, members of president John Tyler’s own party sought his impeachment, largely because they disagreed with his political direction. Andrew Johnson was impeached a quarter-century later, after obstructing congressional efforts to legislate civil rights.

“The decision to go forward is always political. You don’t have to do it,” said Danny Weiss, who was chief of staff for Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi from 2017 to 2019.

Ms. Pelosi believed impeachment should be “related to a constitutional offence, and not to frustration over politics,” Mr. Weiss said.

“If you use a tool that exists in the Constitution to essentially undermine the Constitution because you’re using that tool inappropriately, that’s dangerous to our democracy,” he said.

Ms. Pelosi initially resisted impeaching Mr. Trump, although she eventually relented.

“Sometimes the ground, the political moment, becomes right for something. And the pros would outweigh the cons,” Mr. Weiss said.

Impeachment has proven a difficult sword to wield with precision. The decision to impeach Bill Clinton, in 1998, rested largely with Tom DeLay, then the second-most-powerful House Republican, according to former House speaker John Boehner. “Tom believed that impeaching Clinton would win us all these House seats, would be a big win politically, and he convinced enough of the membership and the G.O.P. base that this was true,” Mr. Boehner wrote in a 2021 memoir.

Republicans lost five House seats in the next election.

With Mr. Trump, too, it’s unclear what impeachment achieved.

“If you impeach and don’t get a conviction, that’s worse than nothing,” Prof. Kalt said. The lesson Mr. Trump drew from his first impeachment was that Democrats didn’t have the votes to convict him, and that he could do whatever he wanted, Prof. Kalt added. “And he did. It emboldened him.”

Congress has other tools for expressing displeasure. One is censure, although that is viewed as weak admonishment. Another is its control of spending, which critics say has been eroded by large omnibus bills that diminish deliberation over individual budgetary priorities.

“That takes the immediate power away from Congress to have an impact on the executive branch of government,” said Dave Hoppe, who was chief of staff to Republican House speaker Paul Ryan from 2015 to 2019. Ideological divides in Congress, meanwhile, have diminished legislators’ capacity to achieve results through consensus.

“When you have very limited ability to find compromises and you’ve given up the power of using the purse, I think you then resort to personal attacks and personal fights,” Mr. Hoppe said. “The way you try and leverage people is to embarrass them by impeaching them.”

That has lowered the threshold for embarking on an impeachment proceeding, and also eroded impeachment’s power as an important safeguard.

“Impeachment has become obviously far more frequent and far less effective as a deterrent than the founders would have envisioned,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History and Prof. Naftali’s co-author on Impeachment: An American History.

Worse, he said, would be if Mr. Trump becomes the first impeached president to be re-elected, which would demonstrate that impeachment matters little – neither as a legal constraint, nor as a political one.

“If president Trump comes back and wins in November, then I think it’s entirely dead as a deterrent,” Prof. Engel said. “Right now, it’s just on life support.”

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