Tuesday, January 28, 2020


The impeachment of President Donald Trump has created a new precedent that will surely result in future presidents being impeached by the opposition party in cases of divided government.

By using impeachment to further partisan politics, the Democrats have turned it into a vote of no confidence, a mechanism foreign to the political system of the United States but common in those countries with parliamentary systems. 

There is just one problem: Congress is not a parliament. 

Passing a motion of no confidence, be it through impeachment or some other resolution, does not trigger the resignation of the executive and the calling of snap elections as it does in Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries with parliamentary systems requiring the executive to command the confidence of a majority in the lower house of parliament. 

But maybe it should. 

After all, Congress is in many ways already unrecognizable from the legislative branch created by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution. 

The House of Representatives has effectively become the British House of Commons, albeit without the pageantry and robust debate. Partisan divides are as sharp as ever with the majority party of the day running roughshod over the minority party. Increased partisanship has also transformed the upper house to the point where getting enough votes just to conduct daily business in the Senate has become more difficult, requiring a great deal of political machinations. Likewise, party caucuses and conferences in both houses of Congress are as strong as ever, thanks to increased party discipline.

The late J. William Fulbright, senator from Arkansas between 1945 and 1975, recognized Congress might be better suited under a parliamentary system. Writing in the 1980s, he said “acute bickering, polemical stalemate and governmental paralysis” — all commonplace in today’s Washington — were symptoms of the present and, in his mind, flawed system. 

Another such flaw is surely the evolution of the speaker of the House of Representatives away from the nonpartisan role inherited in the British tradition to that of a highly charged partisan in the daily discourse of politics. 

Fulbright’s envisioned changes included no-confidence votes and presidential dissolutions of Congress to enable snap elections. Notably, none of these changes are incompatible with the small-‘r’ republican character of U.S. government. Additionally, there is nothing that prevents a state government from adopting a parliamentary system absent a specific provision in a state constitution.

In fact, the only real constitutional conflict is the prohibition against members of Congress simultaneously holding office in the executive branch. However, this wouldn’t be insurmountable as other countries with parliamentary systems separate the legislative and executive branches by requiring cabinet ministers to give up their legislative seat upon joining the government of the day.

Just imagine a House of Representatives chamber reconfigured from its present semicircle to the majority and minority parties directly facing each other on seats separated by a central aisle with Mr. Trump appearing to answer questions from members on virtually any topic related to the government of the United States. The drama would be so intense that C-SPAN would find itself actually competing against the major TV networks for eyeballs. 

Of course, the prospect of question time or other innovations are highly unlikely.

Yet, is is also undeniable that Congress has changed — perhaps forever.

• Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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