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Some appealing features of a parliamentary system

If you’re frustrated with the state of our politics, look at what this system has to offer.

Many parliamentary systems include a tradition that the Brits call the “Question Period” wherein the prime minister and his cabinet members face tough questions from members of the opposition party.
MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

One in a series of articles. You can read the whole series here.

Frustrated with the current state of our politics?

In yesterday’s post I suggested a parliamentary system has some advantages over an American-style setup in avoiding the kind of political gridlock we are enduring today.

So what are the basic differences between the two systems? And what parliamentary features might look appealing to gridlock-frustrated Americans? Here’s a rundown.

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Snap elections/fixed election dates: In the United States, except for rare occasions like replacing a deceased officeholder or something like the recent Wisconsin recall effort against Gov. Scott Walker (which is available only in some states and requires a big petition drive), we are used to fixed election days on a Tuesday in November of even-numbered years. (By the way, weird aside: Voting on Tuesdays in November goes back only to 1845. In the early days, election days were much more scattered — even for president, many states voted on different days and the results could roll in over a long period.)

But most parliamentary systems have the ability to call a new election in the middle of a term. This could occur because the existing government has lost the “confidence” of the House (meaning it can’t get its bills passed, perhaps because the governing coalition has fallen apart) or because the government believes it is popular and, by calling a “snap election,” is able to get a fresh mandate and perhaps a bigger majority. Which system seems better?

Short campaigns/long campaigns: A U.S. presidential campaign is by far the longest such in the world. This cycle, Tim Pawlenty announced his presidential candidacy in May of 2011. Mitt Romney made his bid official on June 2, which means that by Election Day he will have been running for 17 months. Most systems, even those with presidential candidates, don’t come close and don’t have the drawn-out primary schedule. But the shortest campaigns occur in the parliamentary systems. In Canada, for example, the entire campaign is limited to two months.

Known candidates, known cabinets, known policies vs. creative ambiguity: One reason the parliamentary version of a campaign can be short is that there are generally no primaries. The major parties each have a leader who is already in the Parliament and has either been serving as prime minister or has been describing, as the opposition leader, what her party would do differently if she became prime minister. The opposition also often has a “shadow cabinet,” made up of leading voices in the out party, and the public can be reasonably confident that those shadow cabinet members would become the actual cabinet members if their party wins. In our system — and Mitt Romney seems to be raising this to a record height — a presidential candidate can get a year into his campaign and still keep his policy cards close to his vest. As far as who would be in his cabinet, the electorate doesn’t know that until the two and a half months between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

Imperfect Union: The Constitutional roots of the mess we're inQuestion hour vs. press conferences: Many parliamentary systems include a tradition that the Brits call the “Question Period” wherein the prime minister and his cabinet members face tough questions from members of the opposition party. A president never faces such questioning. The closest we have in U.S. tradition is the White House news conference, which is generally less frequent, less combative (since the reporter-questioners have to play the objectivity game while the opposition party members assuredly do not) and much more in the control of the president (who, if he doesn’t feel like being held accountable for recent developments, simply doesn’t schedule a press conference). In the British system, a question period is expected to be held almost every day that Parliament is in session.

High crimes and misdemeanors vs. loss of confidence: A president who loses the confidence of the Congress or even of the country is still expected to serve out his four-year term. There have been occasions when a president lasted a year or two or even three years in a severely weakened state. But in our system, the only way to get him out of office is with a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict him on a charge of high crimes or misdemeanors, a standard so high it’s never been met. In a parliamentary system, a prime minister who suffers a “vote of no confidence” must resign or face the electorate within a matter of weeks.

Long transition vs. next day: Speaking of those two and a half months of lame duckery, when the government is nearly frozen, in the parliamentary system there is no lag. In many cases, the new prime minister and cabinet members start governing the day after the election. When the shape and extent of the 2008 financial crisis began to come into clear view in the fall of 2008, the U.S. was led by a president who had long since lost the country’s confidence. (President G.W. Bush’s approval ratings were under water during almost his entire second-term and fell below 30 percent even before the economy tanked. By October, when the financial system was on the edge of meltdown, when decisions had to be made ab out bailouts, when TARP was passed, Bush was a double lame-duck, both because of the loss of confidence in him and because he would not be in office to follow through on the laws he signed.) As you may know, for most of U.S. history the lag between the election and inauguration of a new president used to last five months, with inauguration in March. In 1861, the secession of the southern states began after the election but before the inauguration of President Lincoln. In 1933, a nation that had endured more than three years of Depression waiting for a new president, ratified the 20th amendment, which shortened the transition to three months.

It’s possible — I can’t really tell — that I’ve stacked the deck in the differences I’ve chosen or the way I’ve described them that makes the parliamentary structure looks superior to ours. If so I apologize. I do confess that I’m interested in sparking fresh thinking about the strengths and weakness of our system, which is a challenge since we are indoctrinated to believe it to be the model for the world. As I mentioned in a previous installment, new democracies that have designed systems over recent years have pretty much all chosen other models than ours, which says something about how the U.S. system looks to those who haven’t been raised on it and are considering alternatives.

Of course, the fact that our system is built for gridlock might not seem like such a disadvantage to those who believe that the less the government does, the better. For a philosophical take on that issue, I turned to political scientist Jane Mansbridge of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who was invited to give a prestigious poly-sci lecture (named for father of the Constitution, James Madison) and chose the topic “The Importance of Getting Things Done.” The interview with Mansbridge will be the topic of the next installment.