Fine the President?

Fine the President?

Fine the President?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 18 1998 7:43 PM

Fine the President?

Some people are looking for a way to punish President Clinton that's tougher than censure but not as tough as impeachment. On ABC's This Week, former Clintonite George Stephanopoulos proposed a fine--Clinton should reimburse the government for the cost of the Lewinsky portion of Starr's investigation (the part for which his dissembling was responsible). Is this suggestion serious? Is it kosher?

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Stephanopoulos certainly meant to be serious and subsequent articles from the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, and the Associated Press treated his proposal respectfully. A financial penalty might assuage outraged voters in a way that Clinton's many apologies have not.

There is precedent. In 1997 Congress fined Newt Gingrich $300,000 as punishment for lying about ethics violations. Speaker Gingrich agreed to accept a loan from Bob Dole, who was by then employed by a Washington lobbying firm. Many pundits pronounced this deal a conflict of interest, even though Dole pledged not to lobby his well-connected debtor. Coincidentally, on Monday Gingrich announced he doesn't need Dole's money since the latest Gingrich book is selling better than expected.

One problem with the fine idea is how Clinton could be expected to pay it--on top of his lawyers' bills, etc. The fine Stephanopoulos proposes would be something like $4 million. It's hard to think of any way the president, or even the ex-president, could raise that kind of money without controversy and objection from the very critics the fine is supposed to assuage.

In practice, a fine can only work as part of a plea bargain. Clinton must agree to it. If Congress attempted to impose a fine against his will, Clinton could call it a "bill of attainder." That is a law imposing punishment on an individual without trial, and it is prohibited by the Constitution. But Bill Clinton is the only person with the legal standing to dispute a fine levied against Bill Clinton. If he goes along, no one else can object.

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Explainer thanks Professor Jesse Choper of Boalt Hall School of Law.