November 16, 2005

Not quite a parliamentary system

Mark Schmitt has another interesting post up about the continued drift in U.S. politics towards the executive and legislative branches of the majority party co-ordinating with each other more than they ever did in the past. This is a theme that Josh Marshall at talkingpointsmemo has also written about.

Schmitt is always worth reading as someone who writes well, and has a lot of experience and insight round Washington. I think they are identifying something important about the way the Republicans run Washington when they have control of all three branches, and the seeming willingness of House and Senate leaders to defer to and support the executive (though that's breaking down as Bush becomes less popular!)

I'd like to respectfully dissent a little. In part, because I think the test of whether the U.S. system is really becoming more parliamentary is what happens when different parties control the different branches. I think we'd see a reversion to a more traditional form of U.S. politics, with shifting allegiances and compromises to command assent in both Houses of Congress and in the White House.

But more importantly than that I'd make these points

  1. In a real parliamentary system the minority party in the legislature has regular opportunities to hold the executive to account. When parliament is sitting most systems make the Prime Minister and their Cabinet face up to questions from the Opposition. To my knowledge, there is no provision at either state or federal level for the Governor or President to regularly face questions from the minority. This is a hugely important aspect of how a parliamentary system works, given that the executive is drawn from the legislature
  2. While the House and Senate were once a path to the Presidency, the last Senator or Representative elected as President was Kennedy. In 1960. For whatever reason—the primary system, underlying voter preference, a run of bad candidates, success in the legislature developing skills or habits not wanted in a president—American voters don't see national legislative service as the pre-requisite to executive office that it is (by definition!) in a parliamentary system.
  3. At least in the Westminster parliamentary systems (and really, that's the best comparison given the shared language and history, rather than continental European systems) the electoral term is not fixed (though it has a maximum length...). If the government falls, new elections can be held. You can argue about the merits of this at your leisure—I think it's a good idea because if things break down in the legislature there is a mechanism for letting the ultimately sovereign citizens have their say—but it gives the majority leadership in the legislature some pause to know that if they cannot retain the allegiance of their own party, there could be new elections.

    For better or worse, the voting public has short memories. Some of the power of the Republican majority leadership rests on the common knowledge that they can ram things through the House or Senate far enough in advance of the elections that voters will forget what happened. Dissenting members of the majority party who can credibly threaten to defect to the opposition for a confidence vote and cause fresh elections cannot be pressured to quite the same degree.

What we have now in the United States is an ersatz representation of a parliamentary system, in appearance but not form. It occurs because the interests of the legislative majority and the executive coincided temporarily, and they are already beginning to diverge.

Posted by robe0419 at November 16, 2005 04:54 PM | TrackBack

Evan. This is a great blog. I'm adding it to my list of work distractors. Good luck at Philly. Hope to see you there.

Posted by: Duncan at November 17, 2005 08:42 PM

The primary way that we prevent power from filtering to one party for a prolonged period of time is our electoral system. Specifically, I'm referring to the usual way of selecting candidates who get to run for office with party endorsement. This process tends to favor ideological extremists, who will later not be able to maintain favorable opinion among the general population. It's often called "party fatigue", but I don't think that's very accurate. If we had a system that encouraged the nomination and election of moderates, I think we'd see one party being able to control the government for longer periods of time.

Posted by: Jim at November 19, 2005 09:15 PM
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