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.