Monday, June 11, 2007

No Confidence

The Senate is scheduled to consider a vote of "no confidence" in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Apparently the one-sentence bill is unlikely even to survive a test vote.

Pity. Here are a few thoughts about this no-confidence vote.

It's perfectly appropriate for the Senate to express its "sense" that it (and the American people) have lost confidence in the Attorney General. The expression would be nonbinding, of course, it wouldn't have any legal effect (and still wouldn't even if the House of Representatives adopted its similar measure), but the Senate is as entitled as anyone else to express its opinion on the important question of whether the Attorney General is doing a suitable job.

Alberto Gonzales eminently deserves an expression of lack of confidence, for the U.S. Attorney scandal, among other reasons. It's become clear, even if mainly by negative inference, that the U.S. Attorneys were fired for improper reasons. If there were proper reasons, we would know them by now, instead of having a comically absurd series of evasions, failures to recollect, pointing of fingers, and stonewalling as to how and why the fired U.S. Attorneys got on the list to be fired. And it's been openly admitted that the Department engaged in political hiring of career staff. And Gonzales was so eager to violate our rights that he went to John Ashcroft's hospital bed to try to get him to authorize illegal wiretaps while in the fog of illness. One can't have confidence in this man to be the nation's chief law enforcer.

The President and other Republicans are charging that the no-confidence vote is just a piece of cheap political theater. There's no doubt that it has some element of grandstanding. The vote won't actually have any legal effect. The Democrats are obviously trying to embarrass Senate Republicans by forcing them to vote on this measure (and why not? The Republicans were masters at bringing up embarrassing votes when they controlled Congress).

But still, the measure is appropriate. The alternative would be for the House to impeach Gonzales and the Senate to remove him. And frankly, that would be an even better idea than this no-confidence vote (more on that tomorrow). But impeachment would be time consuming and cumbersome. It would distract Congress from other important business. It might well be the best solution, but one can't always have the best. There are cost-benefit tradeoffs in this matter, as in all matters.

The House and Senate have every right to desire a cabinet official to go once they have lost confidence in him. They also have every right to try to make it happen as cheaply, efficiently, and painlessly as possible. The no-confidence vote is an appropriate way to tell the President that he really should get rid of the Attorney General. If it succeeds in ratcheting up the political pressure on the President to dump Gonzales without incurring all the costs and burdens of an impeachment proceeding, that's a good thing. Political jockeying between Congress and the President is appropriate, and avoiding heavy administrative costs is desirable.

Of course, the President has every right to resist if he wants to, until Congress takes the action that would really have legal effect -- impeachment and removal. It's all a question of how much political pressure Congress can bring to bear. But it's wrong to dismiss, as "political theater," perfectly appropriate attempts to put political pressure on the President.

No comments: