Monday, August 06, 2007

The presidential recall

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
Declaration of Independence (1776)

The Founders had every historical reason to be extreme skeptics about government, especially in the form of the colonial administration of the British colonies in North America. As a counterweight to the tendency of government towards excessive concentrations of power, their Constitution adopted a system of complex checks and balances based on the Enlightenment theories of Locke and Montesquieu.

The U.S. political system is founded on the premise that government is a necessary evil. Contrary to popular opinion, it has five branches, not just three: the executive, congress, judiciary, fifty states and the people. To reduce the risk of tyranny, these branches are placed in constant competition with each other—the capitalist marketplace extended into politics.

After 220 years of stresses and crises, this system has revealed its strengths and weaknesses. While the strengths don't require elaboration at the moment, the weaknesses can be summarized easily enough: it's damned hard to get anything done, at least most of the time. There have been rare times when a single party has acquired enough control of the government to advance its program vigorously: during the New Deal and the early years of the Johnson administration, for example. For much of the last half century, the White House and at least one house of Congress have been under the control of different parties. With few exceptions, those periods of divided government have been notable only for their inaction on pressing national issues.

The Republicans, for the first time in a half century, exercised monolithic control over the entire federal government for two congressional terms starting in 2002. They pursued a catastrophic military adventure in Iraq and a Reaganesque program of tax cuts for the wealthiest 10%, but otherwise accomplished nothing of substance. The current divided government seems incapable of action on critical issues ranging from health care to the war in Iraq.

After the last congressional election barely delivered Congress to the Democrats, the deeply unpopular Bush/Cheney regime has had no incentive to be responsive to anyone. Whether the issue is the war or the future of Alberto Gonzales, Bush has adopted a confrontational in-your-face strategy that scorns compromise. Secure in the knowledge that the Democratic leadership remains uninterested in impeachment, there's no political cost to Bush for his obstinacy (1). With the election more than a year away, panic hasn't yet swept the ranks of Republicans who'll have to run for reelection on the Bush/Cheney record.

So here's the dilemma: the U.S. has an incompetent lame-duck administration that seems blithely determined to tread water for the next year and a half, yet we have no equivalent to the parliamentary "no confidence" motion that might force early elections and the removal of Bush/Cheney. This creates an untenable situation: before the next administration assumes office, another 1,700 or more U.S. troops could be killed in Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians could die and millions of Americans could lose their health insurance (2). Bush is clearly determined to prolong the war until his term ends so he and his party can blame the "loss" of Iraq on the next administration.

Even though impeachable offenses have been committed, the Democrats have already proven themselves to be one of the most ineffectual "majorities" in the modern history of Congress.

Could there be a constitutional remedy that might reduce the risk of similar situations developing in the future? Writing in WaPo, Robert Dallek suggests a national recall based on the California model that successfully ended Gray Davis' governorship in 2003:

It's enough to make people think about a constitutional amendment for removing a president other than by impeachment or because of incapacity, as is now provided for under the 25th Amendment.

Such an amendment would need to set a high bar for removal and include a process that would be the greatest possible expression of the popular will. This could best be achieved through a recall procedure beginning in the House and the Senate, where a 60 percent vote would be required in both chambers to initiate a national referendum that would be open to all citizens eligible to vote in state elections. The ballot would simply ask voters to say yes or no to removing the president and vice president from office immediately. Should a majority vote to recall both incumbents, the speaker of the House would succeed to the presidency and, under the provisions of the 25th Amendment, would choose a vice president, who would need to be confirmed by majorities in the House and the Senate.

Even if such an amendment were already in place, of course, an effort to recall Bush/Cheney would likely fail. Neither the House nor the Senate could generate the 60% supermajority needed to initiate the process. Without Republican defections, it's doubtful whether the Democrats could even muster a majority in the current Senate. (The archaic and antidemocratic filibuster rule already imposes a tacit supermajority requirement on nearly every measure that comes before the full Senate.)

The recall model, it seems, would set the bar too high to remedy something like the current situation. It would require just seven votes less than a successful impeachment trial in the Senate. A filibuster could indefinitely prevent a vote on recall.

The better solution, though it's unlikely ever to get any serious consideration here, is the parliamentary "no confidence" vote followed, if necessary, by an election. If such a constitutional amendment were adopted, a simple majority in each house of Congress could force a form of "recall" election. Would that device set the bar too low and create a series of unstable administrations, each subject to removal at the whim of Congress? Or would it create a more responsive government and avoid the lame-duck impasses that we now have to endure?

The British experience, after ten years of Tony Blair's Labour government, lends little support to the fear of instability. In a two-party system like our own, an administration would survive "no confidence" votes as long as strict party discipline remains intact. The administration's party, absent defections, would always prevail.

George Bush would probably survive a "no confidence" vote in the current Senate. Would the threat of such a vote compel him to be more compromising? For a man who apparently receives his political instructions directly from his United Methodist God (3), that seems unlikely. Still, a couple Republican defections might change the political equation dramatically.

Checks and balances, from the presidential veto to the "advise and consent" role of the Senate, tend to make it more difficult to accomplish anything. A "no confidence" amendment, by contrast, could put pressure on an administration to perform and make the federal government more responsive—and therefore more democratic. A "democracy" isn't just a system of elections: in its deepest sense, it demands a government that constantly—and not just every two years—reflects the will of the people and responds to their needs.

The "no confidence" mechanism may never develop roots on this side of the Atlantic, but that doesn't mean it's a bad idea.


(1) As the old bumper sticker said, back in the days of AT&T's telecommunications monopoly: "We don't care. We don't have to." This is beyond cynicism, of course. But the strategy seems to be working: Congress is even more unpopular than Bush/Cheney, notwithstanding the fact that the obstructionist R's have prevented the D "majority" from taking action on Iraq or anything else. The administration is guessing that a jaded general public isn't paying serious attention to what's going on: their disgust will extend equally to both parties. Maybe Turd Blossom Rove hasn't lost his touch after all.

(2) The certainty of continuing high casualties in Iraq creates a moral imperative for impeachment that the Democrats seem unwilling to acknowledge, even if they lack the 2/3 majority needed to convict. Would Bush continue to stonewall, even he'd prevail in the Senate? Most likely he would, but there's really no choice (notwithstanding Nancy Pelosi's premature opposition to impeachment last year). Sadly, the Democrats don't presently have the political will or courage to even pass a censure motion. Maybe they need more encouragement (or demands) from the public, which now seems to consider Congress to be even more incompetent than Bush.

(3) In 2004, for example, Bush reportedly said: "I trust God speaks through me. Without that I couldn't do my job." The White House has since denied that story, and similar stories, about Bush's direct communication with the divine.

PAINTING: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson reviewing a draft of the Declaration of Independence. Painting by J.L.G. Ferris (Wikipedia Commons).

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