No Confidence

We need a new mechanism in American politics.  We need to introduce a vote of no confidence.

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Home of the Least Productive People Anywhere

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.

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7 Responses to No Confidence

  1. Kathleen says:

    All the more fitting given the House just voted for the 40th time to try and repeal Obamacare. *sigh*

    • Heard and acknowledged. It’s sad that the House can vote 40 times to repeal all or part of Obamacare and yet can’t put forth the effort to vote once to fix any portion of the ACA. It will be necessary to repair the ACA going forward. It’s not going anywhere. And if Congress continues to do nothing, all of the flaws in the ACA (just like every other law) will overwhelm any benefits this law might have for anyone.

  2. Robert Yeske says:

    Tom Clancy Covered your reset button once in a book. In that book, at a state of the union speech with both houses of congress present the building was destroyed and all parties killed…It was a happy moment…wait…

    Initiative and recall are the closest thing we have to that and they are unfortunately at the state level only.

    As to not passing NEW items…sir I have to say, that is likely an improvement over the plethora of useless bills that are signed into law every year. I actually believe this congress may be the most realistic in 100 years. If you review the bills past in previous years, to put it bluntly, they have been a waste of paper. Congressmen and women want to show off that they are doing something, writing new bills that cover the same items already covered by other laws, just with some unfortunately little girls name upon them. these pieces of legislation are fruitless and abound in number. They perpetually bog down the real work of congress, and that is the budget!

    Don’t get me wrong, I too feel that when Sally is shot by some idiot that wants to make a noise with a gun even inadvertently I see it as tragic, yet I know that there are already multiple laws covering this sort of incident, so does congress, yet to fight against these sort of restatements for the purpose of furthering some politicians career you are labeled as heartless. truth be told, those supporting these sort of useless legislations should be shown how brainless they are.

    Productivity of a congress should not be a quantity matter as we already have far too much government and piles and piles of unused/unenforced laws. Productivity of congress should be on MEAT and POTATOES. We need a congress that will finally attack the “Deficit Spending” and “unbalanced budget”. We need legislators that understand that they are there fro the good of the country and not for the good of the legislator!

    While I can agree that replacement of the entire congress with a new freshmen class, would largely be a great thing, I believe so for reasons other than those you stated above. But in general, if Tom Clancy was a prophet of events in the near future, I might just not be too sad about the prophecy coming to fruition.

    Do you really want to measure congress on the passage of limitless minimally impacting or useless pages in tomes of laws? I think Quality should be far more important than quantity!

    • Ah, the Libertarian view…

      Let’s be clear among ourselves here: There is absolutely nothing positive about passing 15 bills into law with most of a year gone. This is not Congress doing the people’s business. This is Congress doing nothing. There is no silver lining and legislative business generally cannot be measured in terms of quality (but can be measured in terms of necessity).

      We only have three branches of government. The legislative branch serves more functions than the opening and closing of purse strings. The view you’ve taken here limits the legislative branch far more than even the strictest interpretation of the Constitution would allow. Frankly, Congress does something like a third of the people’s business, so there is nothing to celebrate about that business not getting done. What’s more, thanks to the separation of powers inherent in the Constitution, Congress the ONLY place where this business can be done. And, thanks to the checks and balances inherent in the Constitution, the other two thirds of the people’s business also requires action on the part of Congress. Our government is mostly nonfunctional because Congress is nonfunctional. There is no upside to that, for Libertarians or anyone else.

      I agree in principle that some legislation seems to be wasteful. In fact, let’s say for the moment that I accept everything you just said about needing fewer laws and simpler laws. If that is true, then a) only Congress can solve this problem, and b) solving the problem will result in an act of Congress for each law repealed or fundamentally changed. Even if you accept the Libertarian argument here wholesale, the necessary actions are exactly the same. Congress must become far more productive.

      I don’t accept the Libertarian argument, though. But even if I did, we would want the same thing. I think at least on that much we can agree. Congress must do something.

      I put a number on what Congress has done. I will close by putting a number on what Congress hasn’t done: 4000. Right now, as Congress again leaves on recess, over four thousand bills languish in committee. These represent some fraction (not all) of the people’s business that Congress is not doing, as members fly home (thanks to one of the fifteen things that Congress has managed to do). There are implications of domestic spying and proposals to tighten control of the NSA. There are modifications that need to be made to the Affordable Care Act. There are updates that need to be made to Federal protections of voters from blatant racism (for lack thereof, the judicial branch has found current law unconstitutional). There are appointments that need to be confirmed. There are courts not operating for lack of confirmed judges and lack of funding. There are treaties that need to be ratified. There are a thousand mundane facts of life like officers’ commissions and Federal contracting warrants and inquiries into various matters on behalf of constituents. And there is also an artificial debt crisis created by Congress’ own inaction and intransigence. And the government is still operating on a continuing resolution. And there are less than two months left in the fiscal year – so that thing about the purse strings, yes, is also important.

      A third of our business isn’t getting done. The other two thirds is crippled. I don’t advocate Clancy’s approach to house cleaning, but I also have trouble seeing what would change if it did happen, under the present circumstances.

  3. Robert Yeske says:

    Marching in a circle kicks up dust, but gets you nowhere.

    The laws of this nation have existed for over 200 years. The vast majority of what needs to be done, has been done and the smoke screen of perpetual motion no longer entertains me. Congress has a simple job, balance and pass a budget, respond to NEEDs of the country in legislation, provide oversight to the other 2 branches of government. Our congress has left devoid 2/3s of its job for over 1/2 a century. Instead if balancing the budget, very likely the most important job they have, they spend the bulk of their time in the creation of “something”: for the appearance of work, rather than actually doing their job.

    There are likely some items each year that are substantial, yet they do not require the hundreds and thousands of useless bills and amendments that are bandied about. Our congress is more ineffective via the she quantity of nothingness that they DO propose and pass. Not only does this bog down the real work for them, it does a disservice to the rest of the nation in bogging down the works for the rest of the country. It mires us in the miles of red tape created and amended and amended and amended.

    To ever accept that Quantity stands far greater than quality is an expectation placed by politicians themselves to cover up their own utter lack of commitment to the betterment of this country. They hide inside the smokescreen. The quality of their work (or lack thereof) is hidden by the “see I am doing something!”.

    While you mention some items that we have been debating lately, I see that most, if not all, already have laws covering them…the trouble is not NEW laws, but the enforcement of currently emplaced laws. Because the laws already made are not enforced does not mean we need to create more laws that will be equally unenforced, it means we need to resolve to stand up for what we have already.

    Again I feel the idea of quantity of new legislation as a yardstick for congressional quality is without merit….Marching in a circle will kick up dust, but will not get you far!

    • The best thing I can say here is that this is a naive view of the legislative branch of the Federal government. Robert, they are doing nothing, and that is paralyzing the rest of our government. To believe that “the laws are all done now” is just astoundingly naive. The law actually requires a huge amount of maintenance. The legislative branch has more responsibility than you seem to realize. Take a closer look at that list I gave you.

      Sorry, but there is nothing good about Congress doing what it has been doing. In order to have a minimally functional government, Congress must do its job.

    • I’ve updated the blog post with a more thorough discussion of legislative functioning and responsibilities. Please read it. It is dangerously naive to believe, let alone spread the belief, that it is somehow good to have a non-functional Congress. This is not good for anyone, at all. And that doesn’t change with political stripe — from far right to far left, a Congress that does nothing is a universally bad thing.

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