Monday, May 21, 2007

No Confidence

With the possibility of a Senate vote of no confidence in AG Gonzales looming (and richly deserved), Bush Administration apologists have invoked the obvious but misleading point that a Senate vote of no confidence has no legal effect. This is a variation of the argument that was used during the Clinton impeachment effort. At the time, Democrats who agreed that Clinton had behaved inexcusably but thought that his conduct nonetheless did not warrant impeachment and/or removal from office, wished to see him censured instead. Republicans, wanting to prevent Democrats from having the "out" of a censure vote, insisted that because the Constitution describes the impeachment/removal procedure but does not mention censure, the latter option is unavailable. And likewise today, some Republicans who want to maneuver Iraq war critics into appearing not to support the troops insist that the only mechanism Congress has for stopping the war is a complete denial of funding.

The all-or-nothing argument is dubious in each context, although I'll restrict my analysis today to the Gonzales case. It's true that the only mechanism for removing a principal officer in the executive branch described in the constitutional text is impeachment. Yet that hardly proves that the Senate (or the House) can play no role in removal otherwise. If the textual argument were dispositive, then the President himself would not be permitted to remove a principal officer, except via impeachment. And yet Bush/Gonzales supporters plainly think that the AG serves at the President's pleasure. So the Constitution's reticence on this matter counts for precious little.

Nonetheless, there are sound structural reasons for believing---as the Supreme Court doctrine has more or less held---that while Congress can restrict the President's ability to remove some executive branch officials (as illustrated by the Independent Counsel case, Morrison v. Olson), Congress itself cannot retain the power to dismiss an executive branch official. A different rule would threaten the independence of the executive from Congress. But precisely because the President alone retains the ability to dismiss an executive branch official, absent the drastic step of impeachment, lesser steps by Congress are an entirely appropriate means of exerting political pressure. Withholding funding from agencies headed by sub-par performers is one method. Holding hearings at which executive officials publicly humiliate themselves is another. And a vote of no confidence is a third. If Congress can declare a "National Flag Week" or "Teacher Appreciation Week," as it has done, surely Congress can declare that "Alberto Gonzales is a lousy Attorney General," which is all that it would be doing in a vote of no confidence. Some might say it's the least Congress could do.

11 comments:

Juan said...

Actually, I think there’s another, long overdue, way available to Congress for holding Alberto Gonzales accountable: designate a special prosecutor. What would this special prosecutor investigate? I can think of at least four ongoing scandals in which (before or during his tenure at the DoJ) the current Attorney General has intervened and which probably involved criminal activity: torture of suspected terrorists (including Jose Padilla), secret prisons abroad, US Attorney firings, and unwarranted surveillance of communications in violation of FISA.

Tam said...

Congress has got it all wrong. To quote (from memory, inaccuracies included) someone I heard on NPR, commenting on Gonzales's testimony before the Senate a few months back:

Alberto Gonzales came before the Senate to apologize - not for doing something wrong, of course - but for doing something right so poorly that people could have thought he was doing something wrong . . . He's not the worst Attorney General ever, he's just not particularly good at being the best one.

PG said...

The "all or nothing" rhetoric of Republicans is particularly ludicrous given that they themselves have drafted nonbinding resolutions in *favor* of the war to make Democrats look unsupportive of the military.

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