The word impeachment can be a weapon, even when it doesn't remove an official "Impeachment talk" becomes the political conversation and an object of obsessive fascination for the news media. Whatever else is happening, impeachment talk is guaranteed airtime and clicks.

Impeachment may not remove an official but even using the word leaves a mark

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., speaks during a news conference about impeaching Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last winter. Anna Rose Layden/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption

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Anna Rose Layden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., speaks during a news conference about impeaching Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last winter.

Anna Rose Layden/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Impeachment is a crusty old word from a distant century. It is uncommon in present day English usage.

But impeachment still connotes a constitutional process with potentially historic consequences. Over the past half-century, at roughly 20-year intervals, efforts to impeach three U.S. presidents have imprinted impeachment as a term and a process on the collective consciousness of the nation.

One of those three presidents, Richard Nixon, resigned on the verge of impeachment in 1974. The others, Bill Clinton (1998-99) and Donald Trump (2019-20 and 2021) were impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate, which failed to muster the two-thirds majority required to convict.

Nonetheless, the playing out of the drama surrounding Clinton and Trump has kept the idea of impeachment branding-iron hot. Even the word itself can be potent — a word that immediately becomes a weapon.

When "impeachment talk" gets started, it becomes the focus for political conversation and an object of obsessive fascination for the news media. Even in this season of war and turmoil on many fronts, impeachment talk is guaranteed airtime and clicks.

And so it has been this winter as the House has moved toward an impeachment vote on Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Mayorkas has responsibility for enforcing immigration policy, which is fast becoming the hottest issue in both the presidential and congressional races this fall.

It's helpful to understand how we got here.

It is widely acknowledged that "encounters" between border crossers and border authorities have increased dramatically in the past three years — with federal authorities tallying more than 6 million migrants just at ports of entry since Biden took office.

The easing of deportation rules, the fading of the COVID-19 pandemic, the encouragement of certain asylum-seekers and the desire to differentiate the Biden regime from that of his predecessor Trump have all contributed to the increase.

Yet the numbers have reached a level that has alarmed even the White House. Republican governors have transferred tens of thousands of new arrivals to New York, Chicago and Denver. Some have also taken matters into their own hands, defying the right of the federal government to determine and enforce border policy.

In response, Biden has been urging his own party to make sacrifices to get a bipartisan reform of immigration rules moving in the Senate. Some Republicans have seen an opportunity in this to achieve the policy tradeoffs they have long sought. Others have seen a political opportunity in resisting the negotiations and assigning blame for a worsening situation to Biden and his party.

It must be said that the subtext for all this is the influence of former President Trump. No one who has watched Trump's career can be surprised that he deeply resents his own impeachment — not once but twice — by a Democratic majority in the House. Although he was acquitted both times by the Senate, Trump has reportedly taken his own impeachment episodes personally and shown great interest in evening the score.

Trump has also been reported urging Republicans not to take part in negotiations toward a bipartisan compromise on immigration. He is said to see the issue as an albatross for Biden and as an opportunity to revisit and restore his own border policies — such as a wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico — if he returns to office.

President Donald Trump holds a copy of The Washington Post as he speaks in the East Room of the White House one day after the Senate acquitted on two articles of impeachment in 2020. Drew Angerer/Getty Images hide caption

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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Donald Trump holds a copy of The Washington Post as he speaks in the East Room of the White House one day after the Senate acquitted on two articles of impeachment in 2020.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

So it may have been inevitable that Biden's sharpest critics in the Congress began talking about impeaching him not long after the GOP assumed the majority of House seats in 2023. That talk has progressed to a preliminary inquiry that has focused primarily on Biden's son, Hunter, and allegations of improper influence.

But those proceedings have yet to produce in public evidence of wrongdoing that would seem to amount to "high crimes or misdemeanors" — the standard the Constitution mentions as grounds for impeachment.

Lacking a clear shot at Biden, so far, House Republicans may see in Mayorkas a target of convenience. A marathon hearing on his impeachment this past week featured far more speech-making about immigration than about the Cabinet official himself. The committee eventually voted after midnight to forward the charges against Mayorkas to the full House.

Who else has been impeached?

Only one Cabinet official has actually been impeached in all of U.S. history. His name was William Belknap, and he was secretary of war in 1876 (long before that office was renamed the secretary of defense). Belknap was accused of receiving kickbacks from people he appointed to run trading posts at military forts around the country. While he rushed to resign before suffering the ignominy of a House vote, the House proceeded to impeach him anyway. The Senate ruled that it, too, had jurisdiction in the matter despite the resignation. But then it failed to muster the two-thirds vote to convict.

G. Thomas Porteous Jr., U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana, walks out of the hearing room during a break in his U.S. Senate impeachment trial in 2010. He had been impeached by the House and faced a Senate impeachment trial with charges involving payoffs, kickbacks and lying under oath. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images

G. Thomas Porteous Jr., U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana, walks out of the hearing room during a break in his U.S. Senate impeachment trial in 2010. He had been impeached by the House and faced a Senate impeachment trial with charges involving payoffs, kickbacks and lying under oath.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Two other Cabinet members, an attorney general and a secretary of the Treasury were the subject of hearings in the House Judiciary Committee in the years between the two world wars. The former did not have articles of impeachment reported to the House floor, the latter resigned to become an ambassador and thereby brought the proceedings against him to a close.

There have also been three attempts to remove all or part of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the panel that sets monetary policy. None of these efforts — in 1917, 1933 and 1985 — reached the House floor.

The power to impeach has been at least a concept in English law since the 14th century, used at times against officials seen as stand-ins for the crowned monarch of the day. The existence of such a power spurred debate at the 1787 convention in Philadelphia that created the Constitution.

Some attendees openly advocated a powerful, central chief executive, perhaps envisioning a consensus figure such as George Washington in the role. But others, such as Ben Franklin of Pennsylvania, feared the idea of an untrammeled chief executive. He thought it smacked of the imperial personage the American revolutionists had fought to overthrow, and he feared the lack of such a mechanism would leave opponents of the government without any form of nonviolent recourse.

Alcee Hastings testifying at his impeachment trial in 1989. Michael Jenkins/CQ-Roll Call Inc via Getty Images hide caption

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Michael Jenkins/CQ-Roll Call Inc via Getty Images

Alcee Hastings testifying at his impeachment trial in 1989.

Michael Jenkins/CQ-Roll Call Inc via Getty Images

As it turns out, those who feared impeachment efforts would be a constant distraction did not see their fears borne out. Since the end of the 1700s, formal impeachment of a federal official in the U.S. has happened just 20 times. As noted, three of those were presidents and one was a Cabinet member. The rest were federal judges.

Of these jurists, just eight were actually convicted and removed. Perhaps the best known was Salmon Chase, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, who was impeached in 1804 on charges of "arbitrary and oppressive conduct" as presiding judge on trials. Tried in the Senate, Chase was acquitted.

The most recent federal judge impeached was G. Thomas Porteous Jr., a District Court judge in Louisiana who was charged with accepting bribes and making false statements. The Senate found him guilty in 2010 and disqualified him from any future office.

A few years before that, a district court judge in Florida named Alcee Hastings was impeached by the House in 1988 for bribery and perjury. He was convicted and removed by the Senate. But Hastings did not go quietly. He came back to win election to a seat in the House in 1992 and served in Congress for nearly three decades until his death in 2021.