It’s the institutional design, stupid! With a parliamentary system, America could avoid gridlock and instability
Milind Thakar is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Indianapolis. He is a Public Voices Fellow at the Op-Ed Project.
As the fifteen votes for the US House Speaker’s position make clear, the political system is mired in gridlock, both between parties, and internally within the Republican party. Short of holding repeated votes to effect a leadership resolution there is not much else that can be done. Republican representatives have promised, and Democrats expect, a gridlock in Congress as the House can and will slow proceedings. Much is made of the political climate and polarization bringing about this situation and we often hearken back to days when cooperation was the norm. However, while polarization has exacerbated the problem, fundamentally, this is an issue of institutional design. The American political system was never meant to handle polarized, conflictual, party antagonists. It was designed as a cooperative system in which members of all political factions would work with each other. If the United States had a parliamentary system, this sort of instability and gridlock would be at best a few bumps in the road instead of a full stop. Parliamentary systems have built-in mechanisms for conflict management and resolution including snap elections, executive removal, and government change through votes of confidence and flexible terms of office. The absence of these prompts and exacerbates uncooperative behavior for the minority party in the United States.
The American political system was designed for stability and to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful. In this it succeeds admirably, through fixed terms for members of Congress and Presidents and the difficulty in removing them from office. Moreover, change of government must wait for fresh elections which may not produce a unified result in legislative and executive triumph but a division of those branches between the two parties. When politics is not polarized, this is not a problem as Congressional members and Presidents acquiesce in the others’ demands or reach a negotiation. But polarization has produced a non-negotiable framework - as visible famously in the Merrick Garland case when Mitch McConnell refused to allow President Obama to bring forward his candidate nine months ahead of elections, or at least reduced the opportunities and issues to negotiate in terms of the extent and content. This intractable behavior produces gridlock and risky behavior from the minority party which can lead to a government shutdown or threat of a credit collapse or other scenarios where the government and country are at risk.
In a parliamentary system, by contrast, the legislature includes the executive – the prime minister is a member of the leading party or the coalition of parties that form a majority. By default, he/she has a legislative majority to carry on governmental duties. If the prime minister loses this majority through internal rebellion or defection (of his party members to another party), the system restores order by the formation of a rival political coalition which can command a legislative majority. We saw this in Britain recently when Boris Johnson and Liz Truss lost their leadership but internal party deliberations produced new leaders and support for a new government. In the absence of a successor government being formed an election can be called anytime. This means the system can handle instability unlike the US presidential system where elections have fixed terms. Usually, parliamentary elections are decisive and result in a new majority government. The only exceptions happen in countries which have a Proportional Representation system that yields multiple political parties. But even in those cases a caretaker government can continue with sufficient legislative power until a decisive election or successful government formation takes place.
America’s problem is recent. Until 1994 the tone of the opposition in American politics was not so raucous and Republican Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan presided over Congresses often completely dominated by Democrats. But since the political party was a weaker formulation in those days, cross-aisle collaboration (such as in the McCain-Feingold and Nunn Lugar Acts) was relatively common and obstructing the President was reserved for stronger ideological issues. Given that level of amity, the presidential system worked. But the increasing hardening of party stances coupled with extreme polarization has rendered the system vulnerable to disruption since there is no way to alter the stalemate. A fundamentally cooperative system like the US has no mechanism for change until the next election.
By contrast, the French presidential political system has a parliament and is therefore a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, and the President has the power to call for elections to try and get a legislative majority for his/her party, something their US counterpart cannot do. But the veto points in America’s polity, designed to check abuse, act as the building materials for gridlock.
Imagine a parliamentary system in the United States. Joe Biden could only become a Prime Minister with a Democratic majority in the legislature thereby resolving two key issues: automatic (or at least ensured) passing of legislation, and two, fewer challenges from legislative leadership since he would be the leader of his party. Currently, there is no official leader of any party in the United States – the President is considered the most prestigious leader but has no official title to that effect. Moreover, if Biden felt that his majority was slipping but he sensed that people might support his legislation, he could call a snap election after dissolving parliament and seek an enhanced majority. Unfortunately, changing the system to parliamentary requires a very high degree of cooperation between party members or a two-thirds majority in both houses, which is not possible currently.
There is general agreement that the American constitution has been a relatively successful one since it has had very few amendments over nearly 250 years. But it was designed for a party with less polity where compromise and cooperation were the expectation. It was not built for the polarized and conflictual system we have today. The increasing and repeated prospect of gridlock threatens America’s economic and security credibility globally. A parliamentary system would resolve America’s increasing instability and dysfunctional government.
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