Some appealing features of a parliamentary system

MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson
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.

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.

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. 

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Susan McNerney on 10/03/2012 - 09:17 am.

    This may all be true, but

    it’s physically impossible to change to a parliamentary system in this country without opening ourselves up to all sorts of frightening constitutional mischief. If you put the Bill of Rights up for a vote right now, much of it would go down in flames.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/03/2012 - 09:21 am.

    In other words

    Parliamentary systems have done a better job of adapting to the realities of 21st century transportation and communication speeds than have ours.
    The fact that a national voting day dates to 1845 would seem to coincide with the advent of the railroad and telegraph, technology which made the need for a slow, decentralized election system less compelling.

    And the change to a parliamentary system involving a short, fixed campaign period would have to involve major changes in legislation such as Citizens United, which currently removes all limits on campaigning.

  3. Submitted by Steven Prince on 10/03/2012 - 10:11 am.

    Coalition Governments Can Be A Problem

    A less desirable feature of parliamentary governments, particularly in countries with fragmented social or religious groups (sound familier?) are coalition governments. When no party has a clear majority, a ruling coalition has to be put together – often resulting in outsized influence for small radical groups. Do we really want Michelle Bachman or Todd Aken calling the shots because they control some small block of congressional votes?

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/03/2012 - 10:54 am.

    It’s certainly tempting

    The appeal of a 2-month campaign instead of a 2-year campaign, all by itself, almost – but not quite – makes up for the downside of getting to that point. Susan McNerney and Steven Prince are, I think, right on target. The Bill of Rights is often under assault as it is, and starting over from scratch would assuredly make for a different, and not necessarily better, such list of rights. Toss in Mr. Prince’s concern, which I share, and the prospect of a constitutional convention is more than a little worrisome, and I don’t see how we make the switch – assuming the public in general thought it a good idea – without such a convention.

    Mrs. Bachmann’s understanding of governance is approximately equal to Mr. Akin’s understanding of human reproduction. Neither inspires confidence, yet – because there’s plenty of looney right-wing money floating around to drum up support – those and similar views, fundamentally opposed to a democratic system as they are, might well have a significant impact on the outcome of such a convention.

  5. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 10/03/2012 - 12:14 pm.

    Good conversation

    I agree it would be hard–actually impossible–to change to a parliamentary system in the U.S., but I’m glad Eric Black is doing this series and sparking comments. Examining our system and learning about others may stimulate needed changes here. I say it’s impossible for us to change because we have so much local government as well as 50 states. Eric’s series essentially is about national politics–federalism–and different political cultures.

    And I agree our Bill of Rights could not be saved if we had a constitutional convention. As Truman once said something like, “you dance with the gal that brung you…” we have to dance with our good, old constitution although, I agree, we could introduce some new steps to improve and give a bit more sanity to our politics and elections.

    Keep writing, Eric. And do turn off the pundits after tonight’s debate, folks.

  6. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/03/2012 - 12:57 pm.

    Parliaments and the executive

    There is a lot to be said in favor of a parliamentary system. I agree with the other commenters who like the two month election campaign.

    One the biggest–if not the biggest–issue with parliaments is the lack of an effective check on the executive. Yes, if the government has lost confidence it is dissolved and new elections are held (does that happen often when the governing party has a solid majority?). Bringing down the government strikes me as a nuclear option. If the opposition party has some modicum of reasonableness left to it, and doesn’t obstruct just for the sake of obstruction, our present system can be a reasonable limitation on executive power.

    PS Eric–I know you know this, but it’s “poli (short for political) sci,” not “poly (many) sci.”

  7. Submitted by john milton on 10/03/2012 - 01:55 pm.

    a big step forward

    Great work, Eric! Sadly, I agree with comments that — while very desirable — trying to switch to a parliamentary system might cause our 1st Amendment to go down, but there is a big step toward improved accountability: on the first day of the 2013 session of the U.S. Senate, the majority could change the rules to eliminate the 60-vote threshold (and the 1-vote hold on bills and appointments). That would take guts . . . something in short supply for the past several decades. (Or, we could sue the British Government for malfeasance during our Revolutionary War, and join the commonwealth. Then we could be more like Canada, and would that be so bad?)
    John Watson Milton, former MN State Senator

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