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How Much Did the Yanks Really Split From the Brits in 1776?

As we celebrate our country’s Independence Day this week, we should consider both the extent of our break from the mother country in 1776 and the legacy our British forebears left us. The point often is made that ours was less a revolution than it was a restoration to our shores of the rights of Englishmen. [IMGCAP(1)]

A snippet from a recent Senate debate, however, might lead you to conclude that the split with the Brits was total: “This is not the British Parliament,” declared Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), “and I hope it never will become the British Parliament.”

Lott issued his June 11 declaration of independence from the British Parliament during debate on a resolution by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) “expressing the sense of the Senate that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales no longer holds the confidence of the Senate and of the American people.” Lott’s point, of course, was that the U.S. system has nothing comparable to the British Parliament’s “vote of no confidence,” which can bring down the entire government.

So why was Schumer offering such an alien concept on the floor of the Senate? In presenting it, he conceded his initiative was “one with few precedents” but that it was called for because “the dire situation at the Department of Justice is also without precedent.”

During debate over whether to invoke cloture (end debate) on the motion to consider the resolution, no one claimed that no- confidence votes enjoy any legal or binding status under our system. Nevertheless, the device was sufficiently novel to attract media attention — a gambit at which Schumer is a recognized master. Although the Senate fell seven votes short of the 60 Senators needed to invoke cloture, 11 Senators spoke on the Gonzales controversy during the course of the day, both on the procedural and substantive aspects of the resolution. Moreover, Schumer was able to snag seven Republican Senators to vote for cloture (five of whom are up for re-election next year).

Republicans originally considered countering with an ethics resolution charging Schumer with a conflict of interest for engineering the no-confidence vote while simultaneously serving as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. They thought better of it when they realized that: (a) they had sufficient votes to block consideration and (b) they would only be handing Schumer more publicity and attention. So instead the GOP simply dismissed the whole exercise as a “partisan stunt” that was “irrelevant” and “nonbinding” while “proving nothing.”

Anyone familiar with the evolution of Congress’ rules and procedures knows how much we owe to the British. Thomas Jefferson’s “Manual of Parliamentary Practice” for the Senate (also incorporated in House rules) is based extensively on the precedents and practices of the British Parliament. Nevertheless, it is obvious there are certain parliamentary practices that did not take root in American soil — and for good reason.

Why hasn’t Congress embraced no- confidence votes? For one thing, the separation of powers doctrine would not permit Congress to bring down the entire government and force new elections for Members and the president any more than it would permit the president to dissolve Congress. We are stuck with fixed terms for House Members, Senators and presidents — and those terms are not contemporaneous.

Moreover, the concept of no-confidence votes was relatively new when the Constitution was drafted in 1787. Its first use in the British House of Commons occurred in March 1782 in response to the British defeat at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War. Parliament adopted a motion stating it “can no longer repose confidence in the present ministers.” Prime Minister Lord North subsequently tendered his resignation to the king. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s, though, that the motions had the power to bring down government.

Another British practice Congress has not adopted is the question period for government ministers — a practice dating back to the British House of Lords in 1721. It’s not for lack of trying, though. Measures calling for a question period for members of the Cabinet have been introduced by Rep. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) in the 1940s, Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) in the mid-1970s, and most recently by Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) in 1991 (with then-Rep. Schumer as one of 40 co-sponsors).

The House Rules Committee conducted a full-fledged hearing on the last proposal, replete with a televised clip of the British House of Commons questioning the prime minister. Tea and crumpets were not served at the hearing, nor did the proposal ever see the light of day on the House floor. Members seemed satisfied with the Congressional committee system as the best mechanism for eliciting information from Cabinet members.

Despite our break from Great Britain some 231 years ago, there are American Anglophiles who wish our system could be more like the British model of unified party government under a single leader over the executive and legislative departments. Fortunately, the framers put the damper on that possibility with their intricate scheme of separated powers and checks and balances.

Curiously, calls for introducing British parliamentary devices in the U.S. crop up most frequently during periods of divided party government — as George H.W. Bush (the question period) and George W. Bush (the no-confidence vote) can attest. Some Anglophiles, no doubt, are salivating today over the example set by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in stepping down last week, three years before the expiration of his term. Not to worry. In case you hadn’t noticed, the campaign for a new government here is already well under way.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.