Thomas Railsback, congressman who broke with GOP to back Nixon impeachment, dies

Rep. Thomas Railsback (R-Ill.), right, confers with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) during the committee's debate on articles of impeachment against President Nixon in 1974.
Rep. Thomas Railsback (R-Ill.), right, confers with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) during the committee’s debate on articles of impeachment against President Nixon in 1974.
(Associated Press)

Thomas Railsback, the veteran Republican congressman who broke with his party and helped draw up the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon in 1974, has died at 87.

Railsback died Monday in Mesa, Ariz., where he lived in a nursing home in recent years, former Republican congressman and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday.

Railsback represented Illinois’ 19th Congressional District for 16 years and was the second ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee when it was conducting the impeachment inquiry into Nixon. The inquiry was prompted by Nixon’s actions in the wake of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building in 1972.


Railsback credited Nixon with getting him elected to Congress in 1966 by campaigning for him in western Illinois.

“I feel badly about what happened to Nixon,” Railsback told the Idaho Statesman in 2012. ”On the other hand, after listening to the [White House] tapes and seeing all the evidence, it was something we had to do because the evidence was there.”

Railsback, a graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa who earned his law degree at Northwestern University, served in the Illinois House of Representatives before defeating freshman Democrat Gale Schisler for 19th District House seat.

Railsback said he believed he lost in the 1982 Republican primary to state Sen. Kenneth G. McMillan, described by LaHood as “very conservative,” in part due to his impeachment vote. McMillan went on to lose in the general election to Lane Evans, who held the seat for 20 years.

LaHood worked for Railsback from 1977 to 1982 and said the veteran congressman brought him into politics.

“He taught me the good things about politics and public service,” LaHood said Tuesday. ”The way to be a good public servant is to work for the people.”


LaHood said Railsback talked to him about his decision to support the impeachment of Nixon, one of only a few Republicans to do so.

“He said he looked at all the evidence,” LaHood said. ”He felt an obligation to the Constitution and to do what is right.”

According to LaHood, Railsback was saddened by the current state of affairs in Washington and the unwillingness of people to compromise. He called Railsback’s death “the end of an era in politics.”

Railsback was one of four Republicans and three conservative Democrats who drafted two of the three impeachment articles against Nixon, which were adopted by the House. Nixon resigned before a trial in the Senate.

In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, Railsback noted the Democrats won a landslide in the 1974 congressional elections. That landslide brought in “a group of brash” legislators, he said, who helped create an atmosphere of ”division and unease,” and that by the time of the Clinton impeachment inquiry, the Judiciary Committee was much more partisan and the climate in Congress in 2014 “appeared even more fractured.”


Railsback moved to Arizona from Idaho and retired after holding several jobs, including as an executive with the Motion Picture Assn. of America. He is survived by his second wife, Joye, and four daughters.