A Question of Confidence

The Northam situation shows the rigidity of separation of powers systems.

An interesting (well, to me) aspect of the situation facing Governor Ralph Northam is that it underscores the rigid nature of separation of powers systems and their fixed terms.  Northam was elected, as all governors are, separately from the legislature, to serve a fixed term.  While he can be impeached and removed from office, such an outcomes is unlikely.  As such, if he decides to stay in office, the state is stuck with him until 2022.  The odds he will be able to effectively govern are slim because his party, if not large parts of the public in general, has lost confidence in him.

It is noteworthy that if this was a parliamentary system, wherein the legislature selected the executive, there would be no question but that Northam would have to go (and yes, I do know that the Virginia has a Republican majority, so if it was a parliamentary system, Northam wouldn’t be governor in the first place, making this whole scenario moot, but that is beside the point).  It is just striking to my comparative politics brain as to what an excellent illustration of truly “losing confidence” in a political leader this is and the way in which such a loss of confidence leads to a political crisis without a clear end game in a separation of powers system.  A loss of confidence could lead to a crisis in a fusion of powers system, but there is a clear route (a vote in the legislature) to solve such a crisis rather than simply having to complete the term of the wounded leader.

Because we have a rigid, fixed term as we do, the debate in these situations in the US becomes about whether pressure on the disgraced office-holder is enough for him or her to step down.  It becomes very much about some metric of severity and fairness to the accused (see this post, for example).  But if there was a “no confidence” process the discussion wouldn’t be about Northam’s introspection (or lack thereof) nor about whether he is willing to ride out the storm.  Instead, it would be whether or not the legislature still had confidence in his ability to be governor–certainly he does not currently have the confidence of his party, and that alone should be enough for him to know he has to resign.

It is just interesting to consider that under the existing set of institutions, Virginian’s lack of confidence in Northam is largely philosophical, but under a different set of rules it would have an outlet to deal with the problem.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Kylopod says:

    Despite an oft-quoted observation by Gerald Ford, impeachment is commonly expected to have at least a pretense of being a reaction to serious crimes by the executive. The process may be political, but it nearly always has a legal rationale–or perhaps the word should be rationalization. That’s why, for example, none of the articles against Bill Clinton concerned the act of carrying on an extramarital affair with an intern in the Oval Office; instead, they were about perjury and obstruction of justice. In theory the Republicans could have impeached him over the affair itself. They just didn’t.

    Now there have been politicians who have resigned over a sexual impropriety when there was no apparent legal wrongdoing. Anthony Weiner did. (Years later, of course, he was caught doing something illegal, but his resignation from Congress involved sexting with adult women, nothing more.) But I keep thinking back to the title of a Matt Yglesias piece from 2011: “The Most Important Rule Of Surviving A Political Sex Scandal Is: Don’t Resign!”

    The American system is set up so that it’s very hard to remove a public official other than through an election, but much of what keeps it that way is simply norms and standards, which in theory could change if lawmakers increasingly use the impeachment process the way parliamentary systems use the no-confidence vote.

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    I know nothing about VA politics and perhaps Doug does. I have read in the last few days that VA does not allow consecutive terms for a governor, and therefore they are lame ducks as soon as inaugurated and relatively less powerful than most governors, blackface scandals aside.

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  3. James Pearce says:

    But if there was a “no confidence” process the discussion wouldn’t be about Northam’s introspection (or lack thereof) nor about whether he is willing to ride out the storm.

    Northam is what happens when the intolerant, superficial left does the bidding of the anti-abortion right, so….maybe it’s a good thing that he can’t be felled by a “no confidence” vote?

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  4. James Blake says:

    The problem with getting rid of Northam is that his replacement — Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax — may be even worse. Justin Fairfax is accused of committing sexual assault, according to news stories in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and New York Times. Fairfax is accused of violently forcing a woman to perform oral sex on him. The woman who accused him of sexual assault seems to have no reason to lie — she shares Fairfax’s politics, and the statute of limitations has run on any civil tort claims she might have against Fairfax, meaning she has no political or financial motive to lie about him.

    What good is it to get rid of a one-time racist, if he just gets replaced by a sexual predator? That’s like going from the frying pan to the fire.

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  5. Kathy says:

    Not exactly on topic, but could a state set up a parliamentary system for its state government? Naturally it would require a new state constitution, as no states currently have such a system.

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  6. @Kathy:

    In theory there’s nothing that would prevent an individual state from adopting a new Constitution that provides for something resembling a parliamentary system. Article IV of the Constitution does charge the Federal Government from guaranteeing that each state a “republican form of government,” but this is generally understood as a bar on states adopting something resembling a monarchy or any other form of government where authority isn’t derived from the consent of the governed.

    It would be interesting to see one of the states give this a try.

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  7. James Pearce says:

    @James Blake:

    What good is it to get rid of a one-time racist, if he just gets replaced by a sexual predator? That’s like going from the frying pan to the fire.

    And if Northam isn’t racist and Fairfax isn’t a rapist? What then?

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  8. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    If memory serves, American history not being my forte, most British colonies in the Americas elected a legislature of sorts made up of locals, but were under the rule of a governor, local or not, appointed by the Crown.

    Inertia being what it is, this is my hasty and very simplistic explanation as to why the US wound up with a presidential system with a legislature (with many other factors involved), rather than a parliamentary system as the mother country. It would be nice to have an explanation for why Canada, Australia, India, and New Zealand, all former British colonies, wound up with parliamentary systems.

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  9. grumpy realist says:

    Given the chaos that we’re presently seeing in Britain I’m not so sure a parliamentary system would solve the problems….

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  10. Kylopod says:

    @grumpy realist: Please explain how the situation in Britain would be improved by its having a presidential system.

    I bet under that scenario BoJo would be president by now.

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  11. grumpy realist says:

    @Kylopod: I’m not saying that Britain would improve under a presidential system; am just saying that the present system they’ve got seems to be falling to pieces in their Groundhog Day Brexit preparation. May limps on, surviving only because although detested by the bulk of the populace, Corbyn has even less support. The other Tory grandees are playing “pass-the-hot-potato”. Each of them longing to get into No. 10, but none of them willing to be in office when the disaster that is Brexit crashes down on them, after which they will continue to enthusiastically blame Theresa May and the EU for all their troubles. Theresa May grimly drags the U.K. behind her towards the Promised Land of Brexit, determined to make it over the line by March 29. The Tories seem willing to sacrifice everything–in order to remain in control of the U.K. government for one more day. And the average Brit thinks “all politicians are crooks” but are still willing to follow the Pied Piper of Brexit off to the Unicorn Lands of Milk and Honey. (It’s all the “remoaners’ fault, anyway.)

    Sometimes it’s a good thing to have the rules written down and having clearly defined terms of office.

    The US system has been said to “be a system designed by geniuses to be run by idiots.” I suspect the damage from having a lame-duck governor stuck in VA office for a few more years will be less than if we tried to change to a parliamentary system.

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  12. Timothy Watson says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Prior to the 1851 Constitution of Virginia, the Governor of Virginia was appointed by the General Assembly.

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  13. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Kylopod:

    The American system is set up so that it’s very hard to remove a public official other than through an election,

    More or less. In Parliamentary Systems in general is more difficult to remove the Head of State, and you can have dysfunction with Prime Ministers. Ask the Belgians. the Italians or the Australians. Successive removals of Prime Ministers don’t make good governance.

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  14. Mister Bluster says:

    @Kathy:..why the US wound up with a presidential system with a legislature (with many other factors involved), rather than a parliamentary system as the mother country.

    See Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 by James Madison for some understanding of this matter.

    If that link gives you fits like I experienced earlier today here is another.

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  15. Kathy says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Thanks

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