In “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Washington-based scholar/pundits Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann remark several times that the way to look at the dysfunction and gridlock of recent years is that the U.S. political parties are behaving more and more like parties in a parliamentary system, but the American system does not work with that style of partisan behavior.
Because of their structures, parliamentary systems are relatively gridlock-proof. Our system — absent the grease of partisan cooperation and compromise — is particularly gridlock-prone.
A parliamentary system is designed to put one party into legislative and executive control and give that party (or a coalition of parties constituting a parliamentary majority) the tools to both enact and implement its program. The job of the out-of-power party is to criticize and oppose the in-power party, to describe its alternative ideas for how to run the country and to explain why the country should put the in-party out and the out-party in in the next election.
The point of the Ornstein-Mann observation is that in the typical parliamentary system, the opposition party can criticize and oppose all they want — in fact, that’s what they’re supposed to do. But the party or coalition in power — by rule — has the votes it needs to pass its bills and the executive authority to implement them (since the executive branch is headed by the prime minister, who is both a member of Parliament and the leader of the governing party).
But in the American-style system, with a bicameral Congress and an independently elected president who can veto bills with which he disagrees, it is very often the case, as at present, that no party has the votes to pass its bills without the compromise/cooperation of the other party.
Wait for the election“On big issues — taxes and revenues and health care — as the president himself said, we are not going to agree,” Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second ranking Republican in the House, said early this year. “That’s for the election” to decide.
Of course, if the most recent horserace polling is right, the likeliest outcome of the November election will be that we will have a Democrat in the White House, a Republican majority in the House and the Senate balanced on the partisan head of a pin. What would Cantor recommend should happen then? Postpone those issues two more years (or maybe four) until the next election?
My friend Doug Tice of the Star Tribune editorial board noted in a piece last year that the electorate used to put one party in full power quite often. Wrote Tice:
Between 1900 and the end of Lyndon Johnson's tenure, one party or the other controlled the whole federal government — the White House and both houses of Congress — for 54 of 68 years, about 80 percent of the time. Since then, we've had one-party government for just 14 of 44 years, less than one-third of the time.Note that this is a change in the behavior of the electorate. This change has coincided with a different set of normative changes in the less-collaborative, uncompromising behaviors of the two national parties (and Mann and Ornstein decided in their book that these behaviors are much more common on the Republican side of the spectrum). If not for this change, we likely wouldn’t be trying to figure out the causes of and cures for the gridlock that afflicts Washington.
But those normative changes have occurred. Our system has no mechanism to force either the electorate or the parties to behave differently. And what if those new norms are the new normal, (and, for now, they are)? Our system — because of its basic structure and its many choke points — is going to have continuing trouble governing.
The typical parliamentary system can’t guarantee it, but under that system “letting the election decide” has a much better likelihood of working, and in a comparatively short time frame.
I don’t mean to over-romanticize the advantages of parliamentarianism. It has its faults. When I was a young man, Americans liked to laugh at the parliamentary system as it malfunctioned in Italy, seeming to bring about a new government every couple of months. Recently, Greece was spectacle of a parliamentary system run amok, when no party got a mandate but the biggest blocs of votes were obtained by a party of the far (almost communist) left and a party of the (almost fascist) right, who had no hope of forming a durable government.
The overall idea of this series is to consider the sources of gridlock and some of the other stresses and strains in U.S. politics and government, whether the sources are recent normative changes, basic structural issues or something in between.
No blamefestPerhaps some of the rhetoric above gives the impression the series that follows will be some sort of ungrateful blamefest against the Framers and the Constitution. Maybe a little, but not really.
My belief is that the Framers were mostly great men who did about the best that could be expected at inventing a new form of democracy while working around the various “third rail” issues of the time (like slavery) and compromising around the factional disputes that could otherwise have scuttled the whole project (like the fear of the small states that they would be pushed around by the bigs, which is why, for example, to this very day, we have a Senate in which Wyoming’s 563,000 citizens have equal say with California’s 37 million).
I should also, while I’m being humble about my main argument, acknowledge that one can easily exaggerate how dysfunctional our system has become. I try to bear in mind that things are not as dysfunctional as in the 1850s, when the country actually broke up over differences for which the political system could not come up with acceptable solutions or compromises. Sorry, but not even the fight over Obamacare, not even the constant threat of a government shutdown, not even a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating brought about by the failure of Congress to strike a budget and deficit deal, none of these compare with the Civil War as evidence of a system that is no longer working properly.
Things are not that bad. But perhaps the current gridlock in some ways is the worst dysfunction since then. The country has several pretty serious issues that need to be addressed by the government (pause here for someone to say that we don’t need the government to do more, we need it to do less, which is, of course, a great example of how we end up doing neither more nor less but continue to assert our philosophical differences until we get to at least the brink of disaster every time — and then, often, the deal that is reached only pushes the brink off a few months into the future).
I know that the Constitution has the status of sacred text. I know that it is also almost impossible to amend. So in describing the relative advantages and disadvantages between a parliamentary and a presidential system, I know that the chance is nil that the United States would consider the kind of fundamental structural changes necessary to move in the parliamentary direction.
But, just in case you never went over the comparison, the next installment of “Imperfect Union” will summarize a few key differences between the two systems.
Some appealing features of a parliamentary system
Frustrated with the current state of our politics?
In yesterday’s post I suggested a parliamentary system has some advantages over an American-style setup in avoiding the kind of political gridlock we are enduring today.
So what are the basic differences between the two systems? And what parliamentary features might look appealing to gridlock-frustrated Americans? Here’s a rundown.
Snap elections/fixed election dates: In the United States, except for rare occasions like replacing a deceased officeholder or something like the recent Wisconsin recall effort against Gov. Scott Walker (which is available only in some states and requires a big petition drive), we are used to fixed election days on a Tuesday in November of even-numbered years. (By the way, weird aside: Voting on Tuesdays in November goes back only to 1845. In the early days, election days were much more scattered — even for president, many states voted on different days and the results could roll in over a long period.)
But most parliamentary systems have the ability to call a new election in the middle of a term. This could occur because the existing government has lost the “confidence” of the House (meaning it can’t get its bills passed, perhaps because the governing coalition has fallen apart) or because the government believes it is popular and, by calling a “snap election,” is able to get a fresh mandate and perhaps a bigger majority. Which system seems better?
Short campaigns/long campaigns: A U.S. presidential campaign is by far the longest such in the world. This cycle, Tim Pawlenty announced his presidential candidacy in May of 2011. Mitt Romney made his bid official on June 2, which means that by Election Day he will have been running for 17 months. Most systems, even those with presidential candidates, don’t come close and don’t have the drawn-out primary schedule. But the shortest campaigns occur in the parliamentary systems. In Canada, for example, the entire campaign is limited to two months.
Known candidates, known cabinets, known policies vs. creative ambiguity: One reason the parliamentary version of a campaign can be short is that there are generally no primaries. The major parties each have a leader who is already in the Parliament and has either been serving as prime minister or has been describing, as the opposition leader, what her party would do differently if she became prime minister. The opposition also often has a “shadow cabinet,” made up of leading voices in the out party, and the public can be reasonably confident that those shadow cabinet members would become the actual cabinet members if their party wins. In our system — and Mitt Romney seems to be raising this to a record height — a presidential candidate can get a year into his campaign and still keep his policy cards close to his vest. As far as who would be in his cabinet, the electorate doesn’t know that until the two and a half months between Election Day and Inauguration Day.
Question hour vs. press conferences: Many parliamentary systems include a tradition that the Brits call the “Question Period” wherein the prime minister and his cabinet members face tough questions from members of the opposition party. A president never faces such questioning. The closest we have in U.S. tradition is the White House news conference, which is generally less frequent, less combative (since the reporter-questioners have to play the objectivity game while the opposition party members assuredly do not) and much more in the control of the president (who, if he doesn’t feel like being held accountable for recent developments, simply doesn’t schedule a press conference). In the British system, a question period is expected to be held almost every day that Parliament is in session.
High crimes and misdemeanors vs. loss of confidence: A president who loses the confidence of the Congress or even of the country is still expected to serve out his four-year term. There have been occasions when a president lasted a year or two or even three years in a severely weakened state. But in our system, the only way to get him out of office is with a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict him on a charge of high crimes or misdemeanors, a standard so high it’s never been met. In a parliamentary system, a prime minister who suffers a “vote of no confidence” must resign or face the electorate within a matter of weeks.
Long transition vs. next day: Speaking of those two and a half months of lame duckery, when the government is nearly frozen, in the parliamentary system there is no lag. In many cases, the new prime minister and cabinet members start governing the day after the election. When the shape and extent of the 2008 financial crisis began to come into clear view in the fall of 2008, the U.S. was led by a president who had long since lost the country's confidence. (President G.W. Bush's approval ratings were under water during almost his entire second-term and fell below 30 percent even before the economy tanked. By October, when the financial system was on the edge of meltdown, when decisions had to be made ab out bailouts, when TARP was passed, Bush was a double lame-duck, both because of the loss of confidence in him and because he would not be in office to follow through on the laws he signed.) As you may know, for most of U.S. history the lag between the election and inauguration of a new president used to last five months, with inauguration in March. In 1861, the secession of the southern states began after the election but before the inauguration of President Lincoln. In 1933, a nation that had endured more than three years of Depression waiting for a new president, ratified the 20th amendment, which shortened the transition to three months.
It’s possible — I can’t really tell — that I’ve stacked the deck in the differences I’ve chosen or the way I’ve described them that makes the parliamentary structure looks superior to ours. If so I apologize. I do confess that I’m interested in sparking fresh thinking about the strengths and weakness of our system, which is a challenge since we are indoctrinated to believe it to be the model for the world. As I mentioned in a previous installment, new democracies that have designed systems over recent years have pretty much all chosen other models than ours, which says something about how the U.S. system looks to those who haven’t been raised on it and are considering alternatives.
Of course, the fact that our system is built for gridlock might not seem like such a disadvantage to those who believe that the less the government does, the better. For a philosophical take on that issue, I turned to political scientist Jane Mansbridge of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who was invited to give a prestigious poly-sci lecture (named for father of the Constitution, James Madison) and chose the topic “The Importance of Getting Things Done.” The interview with Mansbridge will be the topic of the next installment.