USA Parliamentary Democracy?
National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein sees the recent bout of gridlock in the United States as a sign of a more fundamental shift in how our government operates.
Obama’s first year demonstrated once again that in this deeply polarized political era, big legislative crusades aimed at big national problems produce only big political headaches. President George W. Bush learned that when his failed drive to restructure Social Security helped trigger his precipitous second-term political collapse. And now, like President Clinton, Obama is at risk of cracking his presidency on the immovable rock of health care reform. Democrats control the White House, the House, and, even after the Massachusetts vote, 59 Senate seats, more than either party has held since 1980, except during the past several months. Yet much of Washington assumes, probably correctly, that Democrats are now condemned to gridlock.
Republicans believe that Obama’s problem is that he’s pushing so much government intervention in the economy. That’s undoubtedly part of the story. But Obama’s larger difficulty is that he’s pushing so much change at a time when filibuster threats are so common that it requires 60 Senate votes to pass almost everything — and the minority party won’t provide the president votes on almost anything. We are operating in what amounts to a parliamentary system without majority rule, a formula for futility.
MoJo’s Kevin Drum picks up on this thread:
In a parliamentary system, party discipline is absolute. With a few rare exceptions, you vote with your party at all times, and there’s no such thing as “bipartisanship.” And it works fine. But it works fine because parliamentary democracies have a bunch of machinery that makes it work: majorities are able to pass legislation, no-confidence votes can bring down an unpopular government, party platforms are taken seriously, etc. We don’t have any of that stuff. What we’ve evolved over the past 20 years is a de facto parliamentary system without any of the machinery that makes it work. The result is national gridlock.
Obviously, we don’t literally have a parliamentary system. Most notably, the president and legislature continue to be elected separately, rather than the legislature choosing the executive.
But it’s certainly true that it’s incredibly hard to get anything done when you combine our system of separation of powers and checks and balances with one with near-lockstep party discipline and a de facto supermajority requirement in the Senate. As Brownstein continues,
Republicans would likely be facing equivalent troubles if they had the power to advance their goal of retrenching government. Does anyone imagine that a President John McCain would be flourishing if he had spent 2009 attempting, over unified Democratic resistance, to impose his campaign agenda of eliminating the tax incentive for employer-provided health care and reducing the growth of Medicare spending? Or that House Republicans would be thriving if they could enact their 2009 budget proposal to literally end Medicare for Americans now younger than 55 and replace it with a voucher to buy private insurance?
In that alternate universe, Democrats would almost certainly be the ones celebrating off-year upsets. The common thread is that it’s extremely difficult to sell this country on big change, in any direction, without at least some bipartisan validation. That’s especially true in today’s communications maelstrom, where overtly partisan media sources tirelessly incite the opposition party’s base against the president.
The conundrum is that the alternative now seems almost unreachable too: building bipartisan coalitions to address big problems. On health care, the root of the Democrats’ troubles, Obama surely made tactical mistakes. But, by any reasonable measure, he pursued an inclusive bill. He reached out more than any previous Democratic president to the medical community and won endorsements from Republican-leaning groups — ranging from drug manufacturers to, incredibly, the American Medical Association — that had ferociously fought every earlier reform drive. At high cost, he allowed the process to stall last summer while Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, D-Mont., fruitlessly sought compromise with committee Republicans. Now that an always-tangential public competitor to private insurers has been removed, the final Democratic blueprint broadly tracks the 1993 Republican alternative to Clinton’s health plan while advancing newer cost-control ideas that reformers in both parties favor.
There’s no question that the president and the Senate Democratic leadership tried to pick off a handful of the most liberal Republicans — and keep Joe Lieberman and some Red State Democrats on board. At the same time, though, the need to keep the progressive wing of their own party on board meant that they had to keep some aspects in the bill — such as punishing people and businesses who don’t buy health insurance — that even the Olympia Snowes considered too radical.
The current system is doubtless frustrating. While the numbers were never quite this skewed, the Republicans controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress for most of the six years from January 2001 to January 2007 and had very little success passing their domestic agenda, with the exception of now-wildly unpopular programs such as No Child Left Behind and the fiscal fiasco that was the Medicare drug benefit. But those programs are exactly the kind of things that are most likely to break the gridlock: those which both appealed to the ideological sensibilities of large swaths of the opposition party while coming with no real political price.
It may well be that the political calculations of Republicans are such that they’re simply unwilling to make any movement at all on healthcare, figuring any compromise at all will be seen as a win for the Democrats. But I doubt it. Heck, offer to let Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins write the bill!
The problem isn’t just that the opposition party (whether Republican or Democrat) votes in lockstep against the majority. It’s that both parties’ leadership are drawn from the more ideological elements and that the hard core won’t put up with bills that don’t pass ideological muster. Indeed, the likes of NOW would much rather have no bill than one that could draw the support of a few moderate Republicans — or even the most conservative Democrats.