Shutdown survivors

Shutdown survivors
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One of the main differences between the American political system and that of most other western democracies is the degree to which the US model requires bipartisan compromise and perseverance in order to function.

In a European parliamentary system, compromise and cooperation are, at best, short-term luxuries. Parties can form temporary coalitions, but if opposing parties (or opposing chambers) reach a fundamental impasse preventing any new legislation from moving forward, the parliamentary government will “collapse” — to use the melodramatic term — and new elections will either be held to break the deadlock, or the head of state will appoint some new coalition of parties to run the show. Americans, it seems, sometimes envy this approach, and certainly there was a lot of winsome discussion in the US press, particularly the liberal press, if such an alternative regime could have perhaps prevented this most recent 16-day government shutdown/debt ceiling standoff.

In a parliamentary system, after all, Congress’ failure to pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government on the evening of September 30 would probably have been treated as a vote of no-confidence — as rejections of budget bills in parliamentary systems usually are — and there could have been an emergency election to elect a new House, Senate, or both in order to allow voters to pick a (presumably) more functional legislature. In a more extreme scenario, parliamentary logic could have also justified the resignation of Speaker Boehner — the American equivalent of a prime minister — and allowed the ascension back to power of Nancy Pelosi, as head of what the British would call a “minority government” regime, that is, one that doesn’t control the majority of seats in the legislature. It’s a less absurd idea than it sounds. If Nancy Pelosi had been allowed to briefly become Speaker on September 30, the shutdown crisis could probably have ended a lot sooner than it did, considering that Wednesday’s vote to refund the government relied mostly on the Democrat minority to pass, and, indeed, was delayed as long as it was largely because Speaker Boehner was too proud to be humiliated by a non-partisan vote — until it became clear he lacked any alternative.

Had the House not ended up passing something on September 30, and the US government actually been forced into the unprecedented and supposedly cataclysmic act of defaulting on its debts, perhaps the argument could have been made that the US political system had, in fact, now definitively failed, and an alternative would be worth considering.

But that didn’t happen.

No, the system simply worked as it should, as it always has, and always does, even in this new and admittedly depressing era of constant deadlines and standoffs. As the New York Times cleverly chronicles in this smart little timeline, while the back-and-forth between the House Republicans, Senate Democrats, and President Obama went on for quite a while — too long, undeniably — everyone involved still managed to do what needed to be done in the end.

Republicans held out hope for 16 days that they’d be able to extract some sort of legislative concession from the White House in exchange for approving a bill to re-open and refund the government, softening their demands as the weeks progressed.

First, nothing less than a delay of the Obamacare individual mandate would do.

Then the demand became the elimination of healthcare subsidies for lawmakers and their staff.

How about a delay on the Obamacare medical device tax?

Fine, just tighten the rules for verifying income eligibility for Obamacare subsidies, and let’s agree to hold more substantial bipartisan budget negotiations about entitlement reform and whatnot sometime before Christmas.

Deal, said the President.

From the Republican perspective, it was a terribly weaksauce compromise, especially since, according to some sources, this whole business of “strengthening” Obamacare’s income verification regime is basically a solution to a non-existent problem, since the current system is hardly lax in the first place. But it was still apparently enough to allow 87 House Republicans and  29 in the Senate to save some shred of face, so here we are. The Barrycades have fallen.

Not Congress’ proudest hour, to be sure, but in retrospect, far less of an existential crisis for American democracy than promised. If anything, in fact, Americans should be proud that their system succeeded as well as it did considering the concerted Republican efforts to weaken it.

Consider: that the shutdown lasted as long as it did was in large part due to the amount of parliamentary-style “party boss” powers the GOP House leaders chose to consolidate during the crisis, particularly Speaker Boehner’s arbitrary refusal to bring to the floor any anti-shutdown legislation that didn’t satisfy “the majority of the majority,” and House Leader Eric Cantor’s grossly authoritarian rule change that reserved the power to even introduce a funding resolution exclusively to himself.

Both tactics were, without putting too fine a point on it, grossly un-American. At its core, the United States Congressional system is based on three fundamentally democratic principles: all legislators can introduce motions, legislators can vote however they please on them, and a motion endorsed by a simple majority becomes law. These entrenched traditions — that all votes should be “free votes” and the majority rules — are foreign notions in many western democracies yet also the precedents most under threat by the embattled, primary-fearing Republican leadership at the moment. As I’ve written about before disunity in the GOP is being used by both sides of the civil war as an excuse for all manner of unprecedented authoritarian measures in Congress, but it’s important to appreciate that this cynicism is actively warping and perverting a good system, rather than exposing the flaws of a bad one.

It’s depressing, no doubt. And sadly, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Washington’s existing trends of brinkmanship, polarization, and the strengthening of party bosses at the expense of legislator independence subside so long as the Republican Party continues to exist as an unwieldy coalition of pragmatic conservatives and Tea Party dogmatists who distrust and fear each other. But again, let’s not overstate the tragedy. Three other G7 countries — England, Germany, and Italy — are also run by unwieldy coalition administrations in which two parties without too much in common are forced to awkwardly co-govern, and this is one of the main reasons European politics hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses lately, either.

Unwieldy bipartisan parliamentary coalitions in Europe, however, at least have the option of splitting when the stress of their union gets too intense.  That proud tradition, alas, seems to have no equivalent in the American system.

It might be time to invent one.



  1. David Liao

    "That proud tradition, alas, seems to have no equivalent in the American system."

    Much as it might pain me to say it, the Tea Party may be the catalyst for that. While the Occupy movement lacked the political connections to make any waves within the Democratic Party, we might finally see that big shift in the two-party system everyone's been talking about since the 1970's.

    As for our bicameral bipartisan system, I'd still prefer it to the more parliamentary system of votes of no confidence if there is a huge legislative impasse. Simply put, I'm not sure if our country could survive the political (and financial) collateral damage from every Congressional seat being up for grabs at the same time.

  2. Adam Evans

    The only shift I see is the GOP spitting into two parties. Like how anti-slave Whigs became Republicans. The Tea Party & the Old Guard Republicans' civil war will destroy the current party.

  3. Jake_Ackers

    Same was said before Reagan got the nod. Once Chris Christie gets the nod and puts Rubio as his VP, everyone will shut up. When you have a Governor who can make even the Tea Party happy while praising Obama and be good friends with Democratic Senator (Cory Booker). You know you got someone special.

    Chris Christie: Twice the man Obama is and twice the conservative Reagan was.

    ^ Take the above comment as you wish. :P

  4. Colin Minich

    Jake I can respect your notion about Christie but I hope you realize that because of Christie's admitted respect for Obama after Hurricane Sandy some of the lesser-educated fundamentalists of the GOP are going to think of him as a RINO and try to smear him.

    And if he's up against Hillary Clinton he'll have a Herculean task ahead of him.

  5. Jake_Ackers

    Christie will get destroyed if someone like Santorum runs. If there isn't a strong fundamentalist to the right of him, he will appear conservative and will be enough.

  6. Shawn Spencer

    Given the fact the Tea Party was primarily responsible for the government shutting down and our nation nearly defaulting, I rather hope they do NOT become a 3rd political party.

  7. Dryhad

    The Tea Party as a separate entity from the Republicans would not have anywhere near enough clout to accomplish anything other than ensuring Democratic victory in almost every election.

  8. Jim Harris

    How exactly does the nation default when:

    A) the interest on the debt is $30B per month and
    B) the government brings in $220B per month and
    c) the real mandate in the 14th Amendment says that the interest on the debt must be paid first

    Answer: Obama tells the Treasury to not pay the debt. *NOT* the Tea Party. So why are you blaming the Tea Party?

  9. David Liao

    "Answer: Obama tells the Treasury to not pay the debt. *NOT* the Tea Party. So why are you blaming the Tea Party?"

    That is a terrible misunderstanding of how debt works, how sovereign debt works, and how our sovereign debt is repaid.

  10. Shawn Spencer

    Besides – what we need is ZERO political parties, not MORE of them.

  11. Shadow Fox

    How's that working for Cuba? And Vietnam….and Burma…..and North Korea……and….

  12. Jake_Ackers

    I think he meant more nonpartisan elections in which candidates didn't have to label themselves.

  13. Golgot

    I don't know about the others, but North Korea does have multiple political parties. It's just that only the one has all-controlling power over the state.

  14. Dryhad

    Remember the first Congress? Where everyone _immediately_ divided into Federalists and Republicans? I mean, it would be great if Obama waved his wand and magically solved all of America's problems forever, but that's only slightly less likely than the disappearance of political parties. Even if they were banned they would arise in a de facto form.

  15. drs

    Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, who became the Democrats. The Republican party goes back only to 1856. But otherwise, yes.

  16. Dryhad

    Historians call them the Democratic-Republicans for clarity. They called themselves Republicans (sometimes, at least. They did call themselves Democrats or Democratic-Republicans at times, but as far as I can tell Republican seems to have been the favoured term).

  17. drs

    Huh, so Wikipedia says. Live and learn. And it says the D-Rs split into the Democrats and the National Republicans, who got absorbed into the Whigs, who fell apart then then reconstituted as the Republicans of Lincoln, so in a way it's ancestral to both modern parties.

    Still, for modern clarity, I'd stick to D-R.

  18. Jake_Ackers

    True. The Lincoln GOP also had some Dems too. Plus our politics is a bit different now. Especially since our country was way more libertarian and isolationist when it started. No income tax to speak of. Although it had plenty of tariffs.

  19. T-Roll

    Expansionism and slavery factor under 'way more libertarian'? Good to know.

  20. Devil Child

    Hundreds of thousands of people were shut out of work, many will not be refunded, and all for a deal that'll give us three months of peace.

    Ever notice how no other decent country implements the US Presidential system?

  21. Dan

    Belgium's parliamentary system didn't have a government for well over a year. Let's not cast stones.

  22. Jake_Ackers

    No first world country is large enough to even consider a Presidential system. Small nations benefit from a parliament. A Presidential system has worked for the US for over 200 years and the US is the largest economy in human history. I would say it has been working just fine.

  23. Devil Child

    Back in the day, France and England were bigger than we'll ever be. India's four times our size, more culturally diverse, and under constant threat of nuclear warfare from a hostile neighbor, and the parliamentary system works just fine there.

    The problem is our system.

  24. Jake_Ackers

    India again third world. France has had how many republics? England at its core is tiny versus the actual British Empire (no taxation without representation).

    The US geographically large and has physically a large population. 100 million out of 1 billion people in the world is a lot. But 300 million first world people out of 7 billion is still large but in a different way. Every country is different and needs a system that works for it.

    You can blame our system all you want. At the end of the day we are still going quite successful. Plus a preferential voting system would fix the problem. The problem isn't the Presidency, its that we only have two parties.

  25. drs

    UK has 63 million people. Not tiny.

    We're quite successful apart from unnecessarily high unemployment we refuse to fix; decaying infrastructure; soaring income inequality; stagnant (and increasingly expensive) education levels; and increasingly dysfunctional politics.

    If by preferential voting system you mean IRV, that won't give you more than two parties.

  26. Jake_Ackers

    UK is geographically tiny versus a nation the size of a freaken continent (the US). A preferential voting system would result in multiple party because we are geographically large. AU has more than one even though it's population is tiny.

    The US is unique. It's the size of a continent. 3rd largest world population and FIRST world. There isn't a country that matches it.

  27. Joe

    If you think the American presidential system is bad, try the Brazilian one. With over 20 parties in the congress, there would be more trouble then the American if most of the parties didn't follow 'partisan prostitution' as their main ideology (selling themselves for posts in the government and, of course, taking part in eventual corruption schemes). But if we had a stronger opposition capable of influencing parties to break with the government, that would become an unsustainable situation.

  28. Jake_Ackers

    Well they at least have runoff elections so it kind of ends up sorting itself out in terms of the electoral process. But yah still a lot of parties in the end in Brazil.

  29. Jake_Ackers

    The Tea Party's Dr. No attitude is dumb. However, there are more than enough moderates Republicans to go along with the Democrats. If the Tea Party was like half of the House then yes. There is no filibuster in the House. And there are enough moderate Republicans in the Senate too. They have simply become a political scapegoat.

  30. Benjamin

    The problem, really, is that the Tea Party exerts disproportionate influence over the Republican caucus by hanging the threat of primary challenges over the heads of moderates. Basically rule through fear, to put it a bit melodramatically.

  31. drs

    The House doesn't have a filibuster, no. But the Speaker can block bills from going to the floor, and the House GOP changed the rules on Sep 30 to strengthen that. Boehner consistently refused to let the House vote on Senate bills.

    Also the supposed moderate Republicans have shown a marked tendency to go along with the Tea Party up until the last minute.

  32. Colin Minich

    The issue is that any version of the word compromise that is sniffed out by the Tea Party elements of the GOP is immediately branded as a four-letter word and anyone who is caught doing so is shamed by the likes of Bachmann and the other vicious hounds. I've always advocated people like Jon Huntsman as good and respectable Republicans but no one ever gives them the time of day because the crazies always steal the mic.

  33. Jake_Ackers

    I don't disagree with what Colin and drs and Ben said. But my point is that there are votes to override these Tea Party people. I'm sure the public will reward a well balanced effort in achieving compromise instead of a simple roll over. The Tea Party strength is pretty much over it was about for an election or so. Yes liberal Republicans in conservative states will lose. But I don't see the Tea Party takeover in liberal states like NJ or NY or the sort. I still think there are enough safe Republicans that can go along with Democrats to get more than 50% and put pressure on Boehner.

  34. drs

    I'll believe it as soon as they start actually doing that.

  35. Mike W

    I finally get you.

    It's not that you have an inferiority complex and you're over-compensating as pro American for the sake of being avant guard. You actually believe in the principles of the American legislative branches in abstract and you, an outsider of the system can rightly call out the people who have lived under it their entire lives in that country and have put out a culture so dear to us. How can they defecate in the well like this, and who will answer for it?

  36. Taylor

    Another interesting "American exceptionalism" aspect: No specific comment of support for either wing of the intraparty dispute from George HW Bush or George Bush.

    Admirable restraint from letting a "dead hand" guide modern policy? Or a denial of wisdom from the ones who should be prodding their party?

  37. drs

    IIRC the GOP has basically disowned Bush the younger, whom I wouldn't look to for wisdom anyway. I don't think Bush pere has tried to exert much influence since 1992.

  38. drs

    It's a bit interesting, but then Clinton and Carter stay quiet too. I don't think US ex-presidents try to throw their weight around. I'd never really thought about it… I know Mexican ones don't, and a bit about why.

  39. Taylor

    That's what I mean…usually in other countries you have some involvement from party elders in situations like this.

  40. Jake_Ackers

    I think party elders in the US stay in power for so long they tend to literally become elders. GOP elders are like McCain. They never retire, when they do, they are wayyyyyyyyyyy over the hill.

  41. tlw

    The U.S. political system is essentially a 2 party system and I don't believe that the Tea Party / Mainstream GOP divide will fundamentally change that. Even if a third party arises, it would cause the demise of an existing party, rather than create a new multi-party system.
    In the mid 1800s, when the GOP was established, it caused the demise of the Whigs; in the early 1900s when the Labour Party rose to prominence in the UK, it caused the demise of the Liberals.
    If the Tea Party were to split off, I'd expect the more moderate Republicans to join the Democrats and more conservative ones to go along with the new Tea Party, even if they have their reservations.

  42. drs

    Thing about Duvauger's Law is that you *can* have more than two parties, just not in the same place… the UK has 3 (2.5?) parties, Canada has 4+, but I bet most districts just have two dominant parties. Since elections are basically like US House elections, you can have two parties, here, a different two parties there, etc. The US has Senate and Presidential elections, which iron out regional differences.

    But it's possible we might see heavily GOP districts split into GOP + Tea Party or some such. (Or Tea Party/GOP and some new party of moderate Republican.) I don't think it's likely, but there might be room for it.

  43. Taylor

    The fact that someone would have the audacity to call an observation like that a "law" is ridiculous.

  44. Jon Bennett

    It's a fairly recent phenomenon that the two Parties have become so concrete. There used to be a lot of interests that would move back and forth between the two parties. Before Reagan the Christian Fundies used to mostly vote with the Democrats, Teamsters would often break from Labor and endorse Republicans, Hawks would back Democrats, etc. I think during the animosity of Clinton-Bush-Obama everyone became so entrenched ideologically that no one is willing to ever ally with the party they now consider "The Enemy," even if it suits their interest. Really, there's no logical reason Labor and Greens should be allies; by all rights they should be political opposites in almost all cases.

  45. Jake_Ackers

    Primaries have a greater role now. Ever heard of a "Yellow Dog Democrat"? They never vote for Republicans even if they agree with them. It's been going on since FDR.

    Back in the day, the party leaders would pretty much pick or shove moderates or people of oppose ideology through just because they liked them. At the end of the day people would vote for these candidates because of party loyalty. So you had conservative Dems and liberal Republicans because the local people voted for the party. Today people vote for ideology.

    Labor and Green would be opposites if there were a third party. Green and Libertarians would ally on a few issues. Labor and Coal Republicans on others. The lack of a preferential voting system kind of screws up our electoral process.

  46. drs

    The GOP started out as the party of big business and abolitionism. The Democrats at the time were the party of slavery, opposition to internal improvements, and support for immigrant and Catholic rights — arguably the populist party, especially outside the South. After the Slaver's Rebellion ended the GOP was the party of big business and blacks, though also people like Teddy Roosevelt and Rockefeller Republicans, until blacks got brutalized under Herbert Hoover and FDR was able to reel them in. LBJ's pushing of civil rights sealed that, and drove Southern white racists into the Republican party, which was beckoning to them.

    I've read that polarization was pretty high up through the Gilded Age. "Bipartianship" was kind of the aberration, due to the parties being so mixed on economic and racial issues. After they swapped the South polarization went back up.

    The GOP used to be a more thoroughly isolationist party; most of our 20th century wars started under Democrats, perhaps by coincidence.

    I don't know if Labor and Greens should be enemies. But the GOP is the enemy of both labor and environental causes, so there you go.

  47. Jake_Ackers

    The GOP may seem anti-environment today. Lincoln and Teddy did the largest expansion of federal land for environmental defense than any other Presidents. Nixon made the EPA. It's the pro-business attitude that has put it at odds with the green people lately. Plenty of Christians that support the environmental movement. Funny though, that the biggest polluters are liberal states and the land preserved are in Republican states.

    Personally, I'm not a huge global warming guy but I am definitely an anti-pollution guy. I would rather see a focus on pollution than global warming. It's solution (mostly taxes and ridiculous regulations) that bother me. I much rather see a Cascadia style environmentalism than California style. Like a sustainable living with land to people ratio. Than this botched sense of California environmentalism.

    Also yah the GOP was pretty isolationist and I would argue still is. If not for Bush and Iraq.