The formal impeachment inquiry against President Trump marks the fourth time in U.S. history that a president has faced impeachment. To get a sense of how daily life for Capitol Hill and White House staff changes under the shadow of impeachment, the Bipartisan Policy Center compiled this oral history of our experts from both sides of the aisle who worked on the Hill or in the Executive Branch during the Nixon and Clinton impeachment proceedings and lived to tell the tale.
“All of us working on the Senate impeachment trial worked feverishly day and night to try to get it right. Legislative work essentially came to a halt with such a focus on impeachment,” says John Richter, former special assistant to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) during the Clinton impeachment. “Sen. Snowe viewed her responsibility not as a legislator, but as a juror hearing legal arguments and facts that were in dispute. This meant we were constantly poring through reports, briefs, depositions, drafting historical analyses, examining documents and precedents. We even researched the origins of the concept of impeachment prior to the founding of our nation.”
Julie Anderson, special assistant to the President for Senate legislative affairs during the Clinton impeachment, remembers feeling like there was a dark cloud over the staff as they continued with their day-to-day work. “We were still extremely busy with policy work, but we were all very aware of the magnitude of the situation and what it meant for the country. The American people weren’t as cynical towards Congress, and there was this assumption that Washington would still be able to function. Because of this, and the fact that President Clinton was committed to moving forward with his legislative agenda, we were able to continue with our work and focus on real policy solutions.”
Don Wolfensberger, former legislative director for Rep. John B. Anderson (R-IL), chairman of the House Republican Conference during Watergate says, “I remember my life being all-consumed by the newest developments. I distinctly remember how every ‘plop’ of the Post on my doorstep in the mornings sent me rushing to read the latest scoops. So different than the Tweets nowadays that come in every couple of seconds!”
“I just remember being swamped with work through the entire impeachment process,” said Michele Nellenbach, a former legislative aide to Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) during the Clinton impeachment. “Things never really slowed down for those of us not working for members on the House Judiciary Committee because we understood that once the impeachment process was over, Congress still needed to get on with legislating.”
“I’ll never forget the sight of the helicopter carrying Nixon flying over our building right after he resigned from office,” said Bill Hoagland, who was working as a young economist at the Department of Agriculture at the time. During the Clinton impeachment proceedings, Hoagland was the staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, under the leadership of Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM). “I, along with the other committee members, had found out about the impeachment inquiry while we were on a bipartisan flight back from Europe after overseeing the adoption of the Euro. Coming back home to that after such a successful trip was quite the reality check,” Hoagland said. “The staff was absolutely engrossed by the hearings,” Hoagland continued. “We had our regular work scheduled in the mornings so we could watch the trial in the afternoon.”
The American people weren’t as cynical towards Congress, and there was this assumption that Washington would still able to function. Because of this, and the fact that President Clinton was committed to moving forward with his legislative agenda, we were able to continue with our work and focus on real policy solutions.
Things never really slowed down for those of us not working for members on the House Judiciary Committee because we understood that once the impeachment process was over, Congress still needed to get on with legislating.
“We had a number of bills to prepare and introduce in the new congress—many of which were bipartisan,” says Franz Wuerfmannsdobler, who served as a legislative assistant to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) during the Clinton impeachment process. “I remember meeting and talking with GOP staff about the draft legislation and doing our jobs as if things were somewhat normal because we knew that the legislative process couldn’t just stop because of the trial.”
“The relationships between Democratic and Republican staff members on the Governmental Affairs Committee became very strained as a result of the investigation,” said Dan Blair, former senior counsel on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee for Chair Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN) during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. “But after Sen. Lieberman (D-CT) took over as ranking Democrat, Sen. Thompson and he had made a special effort to work collegially and in a bipartisan way on issues on which they could find common ground, which helped ease tensions and inspire us to work together.”
“Bipartisanship was crucial to the work we did in the Senate Budget Committee,” Hoagland said. “We had put together a major bipartisan budget agreement in ‘95 that lent itself to future budget deals in ‘98 and ‘99. None of this would have come to fruition if we didn’t reach across the aisle and find common ground.”
We had a number of bills to prepare and introduce—many of which were bipartisan.
The relationships between Democratic and Republican staff members on the Governmental Affairs Committee became very strained as a result of the investigation.
Nellenbach: “Keep trying to do the little things. Maybe legislation isn’t moving but you can still work with agencies to achieve your goals. There will still be hearings in committees—the majority of which are not involved with impeachment—so offer up questions and witnesses. The impeachment will come to an end one way or another and Congress needs to be prepared to fulfill their other duties.”
Wolfensberger: “Keep a cool head and keep your bosses focused on the legislative work in their committees and on the floor. The root meaning of Congress, after all, is a coming together.”
Richter: “It’s not about the best interests of Republicans or Democrats, but the best interests of the nation. The business of addressing the nation’s challenges must go on, and so should bipartisan efforts to meet those challenges. It’s easy to get swept up in partisan politics surrounding impeachment, but you need to let the facts guide your decisions, so you don’t get boxed into a corner before all the information is available.”
Anderson: “Through everything, I still loved going to work in the White House every day. It was an honor working in a place filled with so much history, doing the work that I believed in. My advice to current staff is to not lose sight of the bigger picture. We all got into politics and policy because we wanted to make a difference, and this is what we must hold onto during times of political uncertainty.”
Blair: “Staff can’t lose focus on the work they would normally be doing. While their boss may be focused on the impeachment, this focus will likely shift quickly once the proceedings are completed and leadership in both bodies will want to move quickly with their previous agendas to demonstrate that they are still prepared to govern.”
The root meaning of Congress, after all, is a coming together.
It’s not about the best interests of Republicans or Democrats, but the best interests of the nation.