When Legislative Leaders Fail In Other Countries, They Lose Their Jobs : It's All Politics Not here — Democrats in the House and Senate plan to stick with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Is it time to bring the parliamentary system's "vote of confidence" mechanism to Congress?
NPR logo When Legislative Leaders Fail In Other Countries, They Lose Their Jobs

When Legislative Leaders Fail In Other Countries, They Lose Their Jobs

With the enthusiastic backing of his caucus, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was reelected as the leader of the Senate Democrats this week following devastating midterm losses. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

With the enthusiastic backing of his caucus, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was reelected as the leader of the Senate Democrats this week following devastating midterm losses.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, you may have heard, the Democrats took a historic drubbing in the midterm elections for Congress. They lost their majority in the Senate and saw their numbers in the House fall to their lowest point in nearly seven decades.

Yet they could hardly wait to get back to Washington and reelect the party's leaders in both chambers — unopposed.

The 2014 election may have been mainly a referendum on the president, but two other names were mentioned almost as often in Republican ads: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Republican candidates everywhere ran against those two leaders more than they ran against their actual opponents.

Yet Reid already has been swept back into his party's top spot, and Pelosi will follow next week — and in neither case was there so much as a struggle.

To some degree, this reflects the attitude in the Democratic cloakroom that these two longtime symbols of the party have served the cause well, and are not to blame for the deluge on Election Day. To this way of thinking, ousting Reid or Pelosi would be scapegoating.

But surely there are other Democrats in both chambers who see these two names as being more useful as targets for the enemy than they are valuable as inspirational figures. They rouse the opposition far more effectively than they rally the faithful.

Yet not one member in either chamber has been willing to step forward as a challenger to either Democratic leader. And without such a challenge, the leader simply wins again — either party, either chamber, every time.

Congress has reached historic lows in approval, and despite the election results, that disapproval applies to Republicans, too.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who began 2014 with the lowest home-state approval ratings of any senator seeking re-election, has just become the new majority leader in the Senate for 2015. He is the toast of Washington.

That, in its way, is as curious as the re-election of Reid and Pelosi. If this is democracy at work, its works are strange indeed.

But then, it is not exactly democracy that is operating: It's the internal rules of the party conferences in Congress. Those rules make it all but impossible for an incumbent leader to be dislodged.

The difficulty of mounting a challenge — and of gaining the needed commitments from colleagues in secrecy — is matched only by the risk of doing so and failing. Ask the last person who challenged a Speaker or any other party leader.

Or perhaps you don't remember what became of Heath Schuler, former member of Congress.

And so, whatever the voters may say, the leaders march on.

There is an alternative to this that is readily available. The party caucuses could hold a vote of confidence (often called a vote of "no confidence") in the leader by secret ballot after each congressional election. Individuals could vote to remove the leader while remaining anonymous, and the question of succession would be taken up separately as required.

Would it be pretty? Perhaps not. But with such an arrangement you would gain at least the possibility that the party leader might yield to a fresher face with a cleaner slate. And if such a fate were more plausible than it is now, shaky leaders would be more likely to step aside voluntarily when circumstances dictated.

Alternatively, if the vote of confidence was positive, the party leader could begin anew in the next Congress knowing that he or she really had the bona fide support of his troops. That would be far better than the default endorsement that comes with winning a no-contest reelection.

There would, of course, be no guarantee a new leader would be better, but a new leader would be new. In an office of largely symbolic importance, mere newness can be a cardinal virtue.

The "no confidence" vote is a feature of parliamentary systems the world over, and it serves an obviously useful purpose. That purpose is not limited to the majority or the minority leader, nor would it require as devastating an election loss as the Democrats just had.

Doubtless there are those in both parties and chambers who agree such a mechanism would be useful — but the same old survival instincts and cost-benefit ratios still apply, and the math always looks pretty much the same. So we shouldn't expect to hear the idea of a "no confidence" vote being endorsed in any floor speeches next week, when Congress returns for its lame duck session.