We need a new mechanism in American politics. We need to introduce a vote of no confidence.
We’ve probably all heard the term “no confidence” before. We might even believe that we already have a tool like this in our collective tool belt. Various issues-based organizations, activists, and social policy wonks advocate a “vote of no confidence” in some thing or another all the time. In that context, a vote of no confidence isn’t a vote at all. It’s a vague statement of malcontent, about something, to everyone at once and no one in particular. It all seems pretty meaningless, because it is meaningless; and, to be clear, this is not at all what I’m suggesting.
Most of the Western world, unlike the United States, practices some form of a Parliamentary system of government. In such a system, the people elect representatives, and the representatives then form a government. The government may be a singular political party, if it holds a dominating position following elections, but more often than not the government is a coalition made up of multiple parties, who must be willing to cooperate with one another in order to govern.
In that context, a vote of no confidence is a serious matter. Someone in government, typically in the minority, calls for the vote. The vote targets either a particular minister or ministry (what we’d think of, probably, as secretaries or departments) — or, a vote of no confidence can be called on the ruling government as a whole. If the vote succeeds, the subject of the vote is obligated to resign and the process to replace that portion of the government proceeds. This can trigger the appointment of new officials, new elections, and the formation of a whole new government.
A survey taken in the last few days indicates that a whopping 10% of American voters rate the performance of the US Congress as good or excellent. This is up from a month earlier, when the same survey gave Congress a 7% approval rating. It’s also the first time that Congress has broken double-digit approval ratings this year. A resounding one in ten voters approves of the work done by his or her elected representation in Congress.
It’s not hard to see why we don’t approve of our elected representative lawmakers. As of the middle of last month, the 113th US Congress had passed a whopping 15 bills into law. That’s right. 15. Here’s a list of them. In terms of their effect on the law, this is what our Congress has done (at all) since elections:
- Passed a revised version of the Stolen Valor Act (after the Supreme Court struck down the first version) – making it illegal again to make a false claim of being a veteran
- Kicked the can down the road on the debt limit
- Made Flu vaccines taxable (wow, that was important)
- Changed the law to allow someone to fill in for the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the District of Columbia if there is no CFO
- Put Air Traffic Controllers back to work so that they could fly home on recess
- Gave themselves permission to conduct insider trading (revised the STOCK act)
- Reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, and the Animal Drug and Animal Generic Drug User Fee Act
- Kicked the can down the road on the budget (passed another continuing resolution)
- Passed a disaster relief bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy (several months after it happened, with a huge and stupid political standoff in the process)
- Passed an appropriations bill funding disaster relief agencies generally for the year (which hadn’t been done in appropriations to-date, with all of that can-kicking)
- Posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal to each of the victims on the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing
- Passed a law, I kid you not, specifying the size of precious-metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins.
- Passed a law called the “Freedom to Fish Act” which opens up boating around dams in Kentucky and Tennessee.
That, people, is the sum total of our business that our representatives have done.
We have a mechanism by which we vote for elected representatives. However, we clearly and desperately need a mechanism by which we can vote against them. We could impeach or recall the whole lot of them — triggering 535 separate actions in all 50 states and in DC. But, with an abysmal record like this, doesn’t it make more sense that we should have some kind of mechanism by which Congress could be effectively forced to just admit collective failure, go home, and trigger a whole new set of elections? It’s, admittedly, not quite the same thing as recalling or impeaching every single one of them, and also not quite the same thing as what happens in a vote of no confidence in other systems of government. But, with this type of absolutely unprecedented failure, I find myself wishing for a giant red RESET button. The closest thing that seems to exist is a vote of no confidence in the government. I really find myself wishing that we had something like that to force a government-wide reset and reorganization.
Screw it. Just start over.
I tend to think about it this way: What are we really losing if Congress goes home today? They’re not doing anything. What would be the harm in not paying them to pretend to do something?
We need a reset button. We need to implement something very much like a vote of no confidence. I’d be interested to hear random thoughts about how this might work, even though it seems to be about as likely to occur as, oh, I don’t know, Congress doing something of consequence.
[he said, from his bedroom, where he sits now, furloughed, because Congress could not be bothered to do anything]
Update: [8/4/2013] As of the August recess, Congress had passed, in total, 22 bills for the President’s signature. The Senate is moderately more productive than the House, but a slew of legislative business requires action by both houses of Congress, so aside from confirming nominations, this is largely unimportant.
When Congress returns from its summer recess, there will be nine working days left in the Fiscal Year. In that time, Congress will need to resolve a host of differences (including a self-created crisis concerning the debt limit) just to keep the Government operating. A short list of legislative priorities would include every annual appropriations act (there are 13 annual appropriations – an overview from 2004, which is still accurate, can be found here). Even if Congress passed all 13 required appropriations, the government would still shut down shortly thereafter unless the debt limit is again extended, and Republicans are vowing to make a fight out of this (and again threatening to downgrade the country’s credit rating, unnecessarily, in the process).
Also: I think it’s important to note here that Congress does a lot more than just opening and closing the purse strings annually. I’ve been surprised, and saddened, to see that there are those who believe that the framework of laws that govern our country is “done” and that Congress should focus purely on spending and oversight functions. This view is, to put it mildly, naive.
Let’s be clear: No law is perfect. And we have a lot of laws. And our laws often need to be reauthorized and updated in order to remain relevant. Reauthorizations are a normal part of the legislative agenda and a fact of life in a system of complex laws; on a multi-year cycle, Congress must revisit laws such as The Patriot Act, FISA authorizations, Trafficking in Persons, FISMA, Federal education laws, and so on (too many laws to effectively list). Revisiting these laws is necessary in order to keep them current and to address problems in their implementation through changes in the basic legislation (for example, No Child Left Behind was introduced in Federal education law in 2002, was first reauthorized in 2007, and is due for reauthorization again). In all, Congress must effectively pass hundreds of pieces of legislation annually in order to keep funding the government and to keep our system of laws updated (even if none of those laws fundamentally change). Doing less means having a non-functional government. If Congress continues to do nothing, our system of laws and our ability to execute the functions of government will continue to slowly unravel. Congress doing nothing has no positive effects for anyone, regardless of what you happen to think about any of these laws.
In some cases, our laws must even be updated in order to remain constitutional; for example, in the last session, the Supreme Court struck down key provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, principally because the coverage formula established under the law had not been updated by Congress since 1975.
At the end of the day, we have three branches of government: One that enforces and executes the law (the Executive branch), one that interprets the law (the Judicial branch), and one that writes the law (the Legislative branch). Each must work with the other and must do its part in order to have a minimally functional government. A Congress that is this ineffective does not suit anyone’s interest, because the entire government is crippled by Congress’ inability or unwillingness to do its job.