Is This Congress or Parliament?

Paul Greenberg

6/18/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Where do these people think they are, the House of Commons? The other day the U.S. Senate, sometimes laughingly referred to as the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, considered a motion of no confidence in the country's attorney general.

To what end? There is no constitutional provision in this country for a vote of no confidence. It's a parliamentary, not congressional, maneuver. And should remain so. Let's leave it to the Brits-like cricket, haggis and toad-in-a-hole.

In a parliamentary system, a government that loses a vote of no confidence is toppled and may even have to face new elections. Here our chief executive serves for a fixed term-four years, for all you civics students out there-and the members of his Cabinet, including the attorney general, and, yes, all those federal prosecutors who just got fired, serve at his pleasure. Not at the pleasure of the U.S. Senate.

So what was the point of this motion of no confidence?

The short answer: none at all.

The news stories kept referring to the vote as "symbolic." It would have been a way to signal the Senate's displeasure with the current attorney general. A particularly pretentious way. Like putting on an English accent. Like the ones you hear these days on tonier office receptionists and NPR. Trendy bunch, these senators.

Why not just pass a good ol', all-American resolution of censure? That's what the Whigs did to Andrew Jackson-before the Jacksonians came back in the next election and expunged the resolution from the Senate journal in a boisterous ceremony. Resolutions of censure can backfire.

Even if this if this vote of no confidence had passed-instead, it failed to garner the 60 votes required to proceed-the effect would have been the same: nothing at all. Symbolic votes are just that, only symbolic.

It's the president of the United States, currently one George W. Bush, who gets to pick the members of his Cabinet, including the attorney general. Here's what he had to say about the Senate's action, or lack of same, last week: "They can have their votes of no confidence, but it isn't going to make the determination about who serves in my government."

Linguistic note: In his typical (awful) way with words, the president tends to use the terms administration and government interchangeably, but that's a whole other problem. The problem with the Senate, at least this week, is that it seems to have confused itself with a European parliament.

There is no shortage of paeans to the Constitution of the United States in senatorial speeches, but any senators who think it contains a provision for a vote of no confidence might need to study it some more. Some senators seem to think it's their confidence in a Cabinet officer-or lack of it-that should determine whether he continues to serve. They are, to put it mildly, dead wrong.

No doubt about it, Alberto Gonzales wouldn't win any popularity contests in the U.S. Senate-or in the country. For that matter, neither would George W. Bush. But maybe that's one reason the founders settled on a fixed term for the president of the United States, so that the executive branch wouldn't come to resemble a revolving door, with its chief officials leaving office whenever their popularity waned. The founders took pains to separate the executive and legislative branches of government, rather than allow one to dismantle the other.

Here is what Trent Lott, the Mississippi senator, told his colleagues as they solemnly debated a parliamentary vote of no confidence: "This is a non-binding, irrelevant resolution proving what? Nothing." And then he added: "Maybe we should be considering a vote of no confidence on the Senate or in the Congress for malfunction and an inability to produce anything." A decent immigration bill, for example.

Expressions of no confidence, like resolutions of censure, can backfire. And at last report, Congress was doing even more poorly than the president in the polls. The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll just found that Congress' approval rating had fallen "to its lowest level in more than a decade"-27 percent, which was down from 36 percent in January. Compare that showing with the president's 34 percent approval rating, which is no great shakes, either, but it's better than Congress'.

Yet the Senate is inviting a constitutional confrontation with the executive branch by issuing subpoenas for former White House officials like presidential counsel Harriet Miers and political director Sara Taylor-the kind of subpoenas a long list of presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Harry Truman have stoutly resisted. And for good reason. For the power to subpoena is the power to destroy, and once the executive branch submits to such inquisitions, its independence is compromised. It becomes answerable to the legislative branch, which is not how the American system is supposed to work-as opposed to a parliamentary system.

No wonder the American people are losing confidence in this Congress.