Senate Democrats announced a plan last week to call a vote of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. On Sunday, Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the committee investigating Gonzales, urged the AG to resign to avoid “that kind of historical black mark.” Does a vote of no confidence do anything?
No. The vote conveys the Senate’s displeasure with a Cabinet member and adds political pressure for his removal. In the British parliamentary system, the House of Commons can force the government to resign with a successful vote of no confidence. * (This happened most recently in 1979, when the Labor government was defeated.) In the United States, however, this measure has no direct effect and functions only as a symbolic act.
In fact, the Senate rules don’t even provide specific instructions for a vote of no confidence. Instead, the motion falls under the general category of “sense of the Senate resolutions,” which lawmakers use to express opinions on all manner of subjects. As in the House of Representatives, members of the Senate often introduce resolutions to state an opinion; few are actually passed. In April, for example, a Senate resolution congratulated the golf pro Zach Johnson on winning the 2007 Masters tournament.
To pass a resolution, the Senate must reach a simple majority, though it can be filibustered. After a measure like this is passed, it is sent to the National Archives.
The vote of no confidence has rarely appeared in American history. In 1950 Congress passed such a vote with respect to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who they said had not done enough to combat the spread of Communism. Nevertheless, Acheson was able to serve until the end of the Truman administration. Historians have to reach back to Grover Cleveland’s administration to find an example of an attorney general in a similar situation. In 1886, Republicans passed a resolution censuring then-AG Augustus Garland, who had refused to turn over executive papers relating to his dismissal of a U.S. attorney from the southern district of Alabama. Garland was also thought to have had improper financial interests in a new telephone company.
A major reason that there have been so few no-confidence votes is that Congress has better ways of rebuking Cabinet members. To punish an attorney general, the Senate might refuse to confirm nominations to the Department of Justice. Or lawmakers could trim the DoJ budget during the appropriations process.
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Explainer thanks Richard Baker of the Historical Office of the U.S. Senate, Ross Baker of Rutgers University, and Wendy Schiller of Brown University.
* Correction, May 24, 2006:The original version of this article incorrectly said the House of Commons can force a change in government with a successful vote of no confidence. Such a vote results in the government’s resignation, and a new election. The same party could, in theory, return to power. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.