America Needs a Parliamentary System
by Ted Rueter
It's been a wild eight months. We've gone through Monica Lewinsky and
her baret, Linda Tripp and her microphone, and President Clinton and his
finger-wagging denial. Now we've seen Kenneth Starr send a pick-up truck to
Capitol Hill to deliver his report, and Clinton's four hours of hair
And the ordeal isn't likely to be over soon. There is nothing in Bill
Clinton's background or character to suggest that he will voluntarily
relinquish the office he has sought since childhood.
History doesn't offer much encouragement. It took more than two years
since the Watergate break-in before Nixon resigned. In the interim, the
nation had to endure "I am not a crook," John Dean's "cancer on the
presidency," the Haldeman and Ehrlichman resignations, and lengthy hearings
by the Ervin committee and the House Judiciary Committee. The nation also
suffered through the Arab oil embargo, war in the Middle East, the
revolution in Chile, the crisis in Cyprus, and the impending fall of Saigon.
Since Clinton probably won't resign, and since censure is virtually
meaningless, that leaves impeachment. The first problem with impeachment is
that it takes too long. First the House Judiciary Committee must hold
hearings; then the entire House must vote to indict; then the Senate must
hold a trial. This could take more than a year.
Congress is currently immobilized by Monica. It is taking no action on
HMOs, education, Social Security, or tax reform, while the Asian economic
crisis threatens our farmers and our economy.
The reason that the impeachment process takes so long is that the
standards are so high. The Constitution specifies that a two-thirds vote of
the Senators present is required to impeach. Impeachable acts are "treason,
bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." Scholars have defined
these as a "political crime against the state," an "act of malfeasance or
abuse of office," or a "great offense against the federal government."
It is unlikely that President Clinton committed crimes against the state,
and it is unlikely that the Senate could muster a two-thirds vote to
impeach--especially given the President's extraordinary poll ratings.
So is there an alternative in the future? I believe we should adopt the
parliamentary practice of a Congressional vote of no confidence.
A no confidence vote does not depend on proof of perjury or treason or
bribery or obstruction of justice or crimes against the state; it can be
offered because of a declining economy or foreign policy failures. It is a
statement that the legislative branch lacks confidence in the ability of the
executive to provide the leadership the office requires.
A vote of no confidence results in a new election--in which the incumbent
executive can run. In other words, the legislature does not remove the
executive from office; it only forces the executive to stand before the
In parliamentary democracies, votes of no confidence are not unusual.
They are not traumatic, and they are not drawn-out. In October 1997,
Russian President Boris Yeltsin survived a no confidence vote. Israeli
Prime Minister Netanyahu survived one in June 1997. The New Zealand
Parliament is currently considering a vote of no confidence against Prime
A parliamentary system offers other advantages. Election campaigns last
several weeks, rather than several years. Candidates for Prime Minister are
chosen by the legislature; they are chosen for their experience and ability,
not the quality of their television commercials, the size of their bank
account, or the straightness of their teeth. There is greater
accountability, since the same political party controls both the executive
and legislative branches. And the Prime Mnister must regularly go to the
well of the Parliament to answer questions.
If America had a parliamentary system, this crisis would have been over
Published in the Christian Science
Monitor, September 28, 1999