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Should the US Switch to a Parliamentary System? (This Question Hasn't Been Asked Since Jimmy Carter)
Pacific Standard Magazine ^ | April 9, 2013 | Seth Masket

Posted on 04/23/2013 6:28:06 PM PDT by DogByte6RER

parliament photo: Parliament Parliament.jpg

Institutions Worthy of Our Parties: Should the U.S. Switch to a Parliamentary System?

Efforts to curb legislative partisanship have weak track records, so maybe we should consider changing the other side of the equation in order to establish a government that can actually get things done.

Rick Hasen has a really interesting paper up discussing partisan polarization and the possibility of changing the Constitution to deal with it. (And you should really read Jonathan Bernstein’s response, too.) Hasen starts off by asking whether we should be considering moving toward a more parliamentary style of government.

It’s a fair question. We have what looks like a serious mismatch between our parties and our governing institutions. We live in an era of sharply distinct, internally disciplined, programmatic parties with very different visions of how the nation should be run. That’s fine—we have some time-honored institutions, such as elections and majority-rule legislatures, for settling disagreements, even when the disagreements are sharp.

But that’s not all we have. Under our constitutional system, we have many rules designed to thwart majority rule and slow down lawmaking. A bicameral legislature and separation of powers, for example, are built into the system, with the explicit purpose of making it harder to pass laws—and over the years we’ve added things like the filibuster and debt ceiling votes that slow things down further. At times when parties are weak, as they were in the mid-20th century, it’s possible for legislators to come together across party lines and work out agreements despite these impediments. But when parties are strong, the minority party has a lot of tools to keep the majority from accomplishing much of anything.

California is a great case study in this. For decades, the state has had an unusual feature: a two-thirds vote requirement for budget passage. It also has the most polarized legislature in the country. On top of that, much of the state’s discretionary spending is dictated by a series of initiatives, placing it beyond the legislators’ control. Finally, like most states, it must balance its budget every year. All of this makes for an explosive cocktail. Any time a recession causes a revenue shortfall, Democrats (usually the majority, but almost never controlling two-thirds of either chamber) seek to make up the gap by raising taxes. Republicans refuse to go along with this plan and demand to slash social services instead. The crisis usually gets resolved when one or two Republicans agree to vote for the Democratic budget (sacrificing their careers in the process) or when legislators figure out how to defer paying the bills without making it look like they’re running a deficit. California looks vaguely governable right now, since Democrats managed to take over two-thirds of both chambers last year, but on the whole, the system is either in a crisis or heading for one just about every year.

Lots of political observers recognize that such governing systems don’t work well alongside polarized parties, but their usual suggestion is to try to fix the party side of the equation. This rarely works. Efforts to curb legislative partisanship—including open primaries, redistricting reform, or bipartisan seating—have pretty weak track records. Partisanship is much bigger than that and can’t just be wished away; efforts to stop it often do nothing and are sometimes counterproductive. (Indeed, here’s a conference paper showing that switching to open primaries can create more polarized parties.)

Could we change the other side of the equation? That is, could we design governing institutions that work better with strong parties? James Madison, who pioneered a political theory in defense of inefficient government, would probably oppose such a move. The numerous check points in the Constitution that slow down legislation were features, not bugs. Then again, Madison isn’t around anymore, and even if he were, he might well consider inefficient government a fine idea that got carried too far.

Could a parliamentary system be the way to go? And if so, how would we get there? Actually, getting there might not be too hard. Tom Schwartz at the University of California, Los Angeles is fond of noting that the U.S. Constitution could be interpreted as creating a parliamentary system. There’s nothing (other than custom) preventing the Speaker of the House from functioning like a Prime Minister, with the President reduced to a largely ceremonial role and the Senate becoming a House-of-Lords-like body of entitled elites that defers to the lower chamber. We just haven’t interpreted the Constitution that way so far.

Then again, it’s not like a parliamentary system is a cure all. Besides, some relatively minor tinkering (maybe abolishing the filibuster?) could go a long way toward making the country a lot more governable. But it’s worth remembering that our government wasn’t designed to function very well. If we want to blame someone for gridlock, we might start with the people whose faces adorn our money.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Crime/Corruption; Government; Miscellaneous; Politics/Elections; US: California
KEYWORDS: barackhusseinobama; barackobama; bho44; biggovernment; constitution; democratparty; democrats; dysfunction; eurotrash; gop; gridlock; jimmycarter; legislature; malaise; miseryindex; obamanomics; parliament; parliamentarysystem; partisanship; politburo; primeminister; republican; socialism; stagflation
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ronald reagan photo: Ronald Reagan Ronald_Reagan.jpg

I vaguely remember other political deadheads suggesting the same thing 35 years ago. All of these proposals for switching to a parliamentary system disappeared after the election of Ronaldus Magnus.

1 posted on 04/23/2013 6:28:06 PM PDT by DogByte6RER
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To: DogByte6RER
I've lived under both the U.S. "representative republic" model and a British-style parliamentary system, and I think I have a pretty good understanding of the benefits and disadvantages of each system.

In some ways the U.S. is basically a parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature. This is a great system because it provides a weighted balance between population-based governance and the sovereignty of individual states. Another advantage (in one respect) of the U.S. system is that it is very stable and predictable. You can look at a calendar decades in advance and know when exactly each presidential election will be held.

The flip side of this point is that I believe parliamentary elections tend to be much less media-driven than ours -- mainly because the uncertainty about elections makes for a very short election cycle instead of the stupidity we see here in the U.S. where the primary season for a presidential election is eventually going to start almost a year in advance of the election.

I think a lot of what the author ascribes to the U.S. system of governance is more a function of a two-party system than anything else. The parliamentary system is inherently unstable if it includes numerous minor parties, but would be much more stable in a country with only two major parties like ours.

2 posted on 04/23/2013 6:38:59 PM PDT by Alberta's Child ("I am the master of my fate ... I am the captain of my soul.")
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To: DogByte6RER
No thanks. Our Constitutional system if just fine. We just need a better educated population (which is why we need a school choice bill and an alternative media).
3 posted on 04/23/2013 6:40:33 PM PDT by concerned about politics ("Get thee behind me, Liberal")
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To: DogByte6RER

What they really want is a Politburo system.

4 posted on 04/23/2013 6:42:39 PM PDT by Stosh
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To: Stosh

At this point I’d trade Baraq for Putin in a heartbeat, LOL.

5 posted on 04/23/2013 6:44:46 PM PDT by nascarnation (Baraq's economic policy: trickle up poverty)
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To: DogByte6RER

I’d love to have “Question Time” over here.

6 posted on 04/23/2013 6:46:37 PM PDT by dfwgator
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To: DogByte6RER

Our system of government is just fine.

Where we have problems, is our elections, and the state sponsored propaganda that encourages the weak minded public to do the worst they can against our Capitalist society.

I’m watching some past season episodes of a show called Continuum. The anti-corporate propaganda in that show is amazing. It boggles the mind how a group of U. S. Citizens could develop a show that is so diametrically opposed to a free capitalist society.

7 posted on 04/23/2013 6:59:54 PM PDT by DoughtyOne (Leftist, Progressive, Socialist, Communist, fundamentalist Islamic policies, the death of a nation.)
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To: DogByte6RER
I suggest we try being a Constitutional representative republic again.

We haven't been one for quite some time.

8 posted on 04/23/2013 7:01:00 PM PDT by E. Pluribus Unum ("Deficit spending is simply a scheme for the confiscation of wealth." --Alan Greenspan)
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malaise photo:  malaise_v2.jpg
9 posted on 04/23/2013 7:01:13 PM PDT by DogByte6RER ("Loose lips sink ships")
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To: DogByte6RER

By all means,

Pack yer friggin’ bags and get the frick out

10 posted on 04/23/2013 7:02:18 PM PDT by phockthis ( ...)
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To: DogByte6RER

The author actually manages to miss the primary argument in favor of a switch.

Our system is designed, as stated, to not work. That’s what the famous “checks and balances” are designed to do. Which works pretty well for a government with limited powers and responsibilities.

What we have now is a government that is trying to “run the country,” something it was neither designed nor intended to do.

This leaves four options to us:

1. Continue with our present system, in which the government struggles to “run the country” with a Constitution designed to keep it from doing so.

2. Change the Constitution by amending it so it better reflects what people now want their government to do.

3. Ignore the Constitution so the government can function. This is what has been done more and more frequently over the last 50 years.

4. Return to a government of limited powers and responsibilities, which can function perfectly well under our present Constitution.

My personal preference would be for 4 (way in the lead), with a reluctant assent to 2 if sufficient support can be put together. After all, changing the Constitution when enough people want to is perfectly constitutional.

However, I strongly suspect we’ll continue limping along with a combination of 1 and 3, with 3 increasingly dominant as time goes by.

11 posted on 04/23/2013 7:02:36 PM PDT by Sherman Logan
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To: DogByte6RER
"Efficiency in government" is code for "the liberals must get their way". The answer is simple: sure, all you have to do is call a Constitutional convention, propose the new Constitution, and get the states to ratify. If you do, the answer is "yes" and if you don't, the answer is "no".

We live in an era of sharply distinct, internally disciplined, programmatic parties with very different visions of how the nation should be run.

No, we don't. We live in an era where the two parties are increasingly commanded by a small ruling class and whose policies converge to squeeze significant nonconforming populations out of influence. We live in an age where both formal parties agree on (1) big government, (2) high taxes, and (3) the maintenance of political power through means contrived and mendacious enough to make a carnival barker blush in shame. We live in an age of oppressive, parasitical bureaucracy and noisy, self-centered political activism. We don't need a new form of government, we need to cut in size and repopulate the one we've got with somebody other than wealthy, manipulative power junkies who use the people's trust as a ticket to a life of luxury.

12 posted on 04/23/2013 7:13:23 PM PDT by Billthedrill
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To: DogByte6RER

“in order to establish a government that can actually get things done.”

But that is the last thing any red blooded american wants.

13 posted on 04/23/2013 7:16:36 PM PDT by Monorprise
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To: dfwgator

“’d love to have “Question Time” over here.”

We Obama just doesn’t answer questions he don’t like.

14 posted on 04/23/2013 7:17:57 PM PDT by Monorprise
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To: DogByte6RER
ummmmm... NO!!!
15 posted on 04/23/2013 7:21:33 PM PDT by Chode (Stand UP and Be Counted, or line up and be numbered - *DTOM* -ww- NO Pity for the LAZY)
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To: Sherman Logan

I would never support or accept #2. Men have natural rights to be free to govern their own lives no constitution of illegitimate Government can take that away from them.

16 posted on 04/23/2013 7:23:10 PM PDT by Monorprise
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To: phockthis

I think it should be brought to a vote. All that vote “AYE”, get impeached.

17 posted on 04/23/2013 7:32:10 PM PDT by chuckles
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To: Monorprise

I agree. But a parliamentary system like Canada or UK is not inherently tyrannical.

18 posted on 04/23/2013 7:32:21 PM PDT by Sherman Logan
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To: DogByte6RER

I think the question was originally asked, in what became this country, in the 1770’s. It was settled then.

There’s nothing new under the sun. Just leftards raising old and settled issues as though they’re something new.

19 posted on 04/23/2013 7:42:24 PM PDT by x1stcav (Illegals? Jihadis? Round 'em up and move 'em out. Rawhide!)
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To: DogByte6RER
could we design governing institutions that work better with strong parties?

Why is it that people are always looking for a reason to open the constitution to change? I don't trust any modern day politician, political junkie, or stupified voter to improve anything - especially the US constitution.

We don't need to change the constitution to deal with "strong parties". We just need sensible laws to limit the money available to buy politicians.

If only real, individual citizens were allowed to donate to politicians and political campaigns, and if there was a reasonable limit on the amount they could donate, many of our problems would evaporate.

Imagine the difference it would make in a typical campaign if all the political donations had to come from actual people who are citizens - no big monety from labor unions, PACS, corporations, civil rightes groups, bundlers, etc.

One thing is for sure - we would have a drastic fall in the numbers of politicians who become millionairs after being elected to the senate and congress.

20 posted on 04/23/2013 7:44:57 PM PDT by Iron Munro (Welcome to Obama-Land - EVERYTHING NOT FORBIDDEN IS COMPULSORY)
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