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U.S. or parliamentary system? One is nearly gridlock-proof — and it ain’t ours

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

Imperfect Union: The Constitutional roots of the mess we're inIn “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Washington-based scholar/pundits Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann remark several times that the way to look at the dysfunction and gridlock of recent years is that the U.S. political parties are behaving more and more like parties in a parliamentary system, but the American system does not work with that style of partisan behavior.

Because of their structures, parliamentary systems are relatively gridlock-proof. Our system — absent the grease of partisan cooperation and compromise — is particularly gridlock-prone.

A parliamentary system is designed to put one party into legislative and executive control and give that party (or a coalition of parties constituting a parliamentary majority) the tools to both enact and implement its program. The job of the out-of-power party is to criticize and oppose the in-power party, to describe its alternative ideas for how to run the country and to explain why the country should put the in-party out and the out-party in in the next election.

The point of the Ornstein-Mann observation is that in the typical parliamentary system, the opposition party can criticize and oppose all they want — in fact, that’s what they’re supposed to do. But the party or coalition in power — by rule — has the votes it needs to pass its bills and the executive authority to implement them (since the executive branch is headed by the prime minister, who is both a member of Parliament and the leader of the governing party).

But in the American-style system, with a bicameral Congress and an independently elected president who can veto bills with which he disagrees, it is very often the case, as at present, that no party has the votes to pass its bills without the compromise/cooperation of the other party.

Wait for the election

“On big issues — taxes and revenues and health care — as the president himself said, we are not going to agree,” Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second ranking Republican in the House, said early this year. “That’s for the election” to decide.

Angry Democrat
MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

That was February. The election was nine months away. The winners wouldn’t take office for 11 months. Cantor clearly suggests that if it takes 11 months of gridlock before the electorate can issue fresh instructions, well, it’s just going to take 11 months of gridlock.

Of course, if the most recent horserace polling is right, the likeliest outcome of the November election will be that we will have a Democrat in the White House, a Republican majority in the House and the Senate balanced on the partisan head of a pin. What would Cantor recommend should happen then? Postpone those issues two more years (or maybe four) until the next election?

My friend Doug Tice of the Star Tribune editorial board noted in a piece last year that the electorate used to put one party in full power quite often. Wrote Tice:

Between 1900 and the end of Lyndon Johnson’s tenure, one party or the other controlled the whole federal government — the White House and both houses of Congress — for 54 of 68 years, about 80 percent of the time. Since then, we’ve had one-party government for just 14 of 44 years, less than one-third of the time.

Note that this is a change in the behavior of the electorate. This change has coincided with a different set of normative changes in the less-collaborative, uncompromising behaviors of the two national parties (and Mann and Ornstein decided in their book that these behaviors are much more common on the Republican side of the spectrum). If not for this change, we likely wouldn’t be trying to figure out the causes of and cures for the gridlock that afflicts Washington.

But those normative changes have occurred. Our system has no mechanism to force either the electorate or the parties to behave differently. And what if those new norms are the new normal, (and, for now, they are)? Our system — because of its basic structure and its many choke points — is going to have continuing trouble governing.

The typical parliamentary system can’t guarantee it, but under that system “letting the election decide” has a much better likelihood of working, and in a comparatively short time frame.

I don’t mean to over-romanticize the advantages of parliamentarianism. It has its faults. When I was a young man, Americans liked to laugh at the parliamentary system as it malfunctioned in Italy, seeming to bring about a new government every couple of months. Recently, Greece was spectacle of a parliamentary system run amok, when no party got a mandate but the biggest blocs of votes were obtained by a party of the far (almost communist) left and a party of the (almost fascist) right, who had no hope of forming a durable government.

The overall idea of this series is to consider the sources of gridlock and some of the other stresses and strains in U.S. politics and government, whether the sources are recent normative changes, basic structural issues or something in between.

No blamefest

Perhaps some of the rhetoric above gives the impression the series that follows will be some sort of ungrateful blamefest against the Framers and the Constitution. Maybe a little, but not really.

Angry Republican
MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

Since 1787, the USA has grown and prospered to a staggering degree, unparalleled in human history, and that ain’t nothing at which to sneeze nor for which to be ungrateful. There are dark chapters within the tale. But the point is not to disparage that history nor the creators of the system of government that helped make it possible.

My belief is that the Framers were mostly great men who did about the best that could be expected at inventing a new form of democracy while working around the various “third rail” issues of the time (like slavery) and compromising around the factional disputes that could otherwise have scuttled the whole project (like the fear of the small states that they would be pushed around by the bigs, which is why, for example, to this very day, we have a Senate in which Wyoming’s 563,000 citizens have equal say with California’s 37 million).

I should also, while I’m being humble about my main argument, acknowledge that one can easily exaggerate how dysfunctional our system has become. I try to bear in mind that things are not as dysfunctional as in the 1850s, when the country actually broke up over differences for which the political system could not come up with acceptable solutions or compromises. Sorry, but not even the fight over Obamacare, not even the constant threat of a government shutdown, not even a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating brought about by the failure of Congress to strike a budget and deficit deal, none of these compare with the Civil War as evidence of a system that is no longer working properly.

Things are not that bad. But perhaps the current gridlock in some ways is the worst dysfunction since then. The country has several pretty serious issues that need to be addressed by the government (pause here for someone to say that we don’t need the government to do more, we need it to do less, which is, of course, a great example of how we end up doing neither more nor less but continue to assert our philosophical differences until we get to at least the brink of disaster every time — and then, often, the deal that is reached only pushes the brink off a few months into the future).

I know that the Constitution has the status of sacred text. I know that it is also almost impossible to amend. So in describing the relative advantages and disadvantages between a parliamentary and a presidential system, I know that the chance is nil that the United States would consider the kind of fundamental structural changes necessary to move in the parliamentary direction.

But, just in case you never went over the comparison, the next installment of “Imperfect Union” will summarize a few key differences between the two systems.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/02/2012 - 08:56 am.

    Doesn’t this ignore the artificial fillibuster?

    A simple majority is all that’s supposed to be needed to pass more legislation, and for most of US history that’s how it worked. We’ve had this artificial rule now for how many years that you basically need a 60 rather than 51 votes to pass senate legislation. That’s not a constitutional requirement.

    The description of the parliamentary system is a little misleading in that it suggests a winner-takes all outcome. In reality parliamentary systems produce more moderated governments because a lot of compromise goes into government formation after the election, and coalition formation prior to elections. Furthermore as proportional representation systems it’s the opposite of a winner takes all system, minority parties can actually have more leverage in a parliamentary system they have in out two party system.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/02/2012 - 09:04 am.


    One might apply Churchill’s description of democracy to our particular form of it:
    “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    House of Commons, 11 Nov. 1947 Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (OXFORD U. PRESS 1979)

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/02/2012 - 09:19 am.

    “14 of 44 years” of one party rule?

    Mr. Tice’s computation makes sense if you assume that the two parties we have really constitute two different parties. On certain issues, mostly social, I’m sure they are. But the Republican “reforms” of deregulation began under Carter and were solidified under Reagan with the enthusiastic complicity of Democratic politicians. The Iraq War was a crime, aided and abetted by Democratic politicians. The 2008 financial meltdown was grand larceny heist pulled off with the assistance of Democratic politicians. The Democratic party, once in power from 2008 to 2010, did virtually nothing to correct the abuses that caused the 2008 heist. And what was their excuse? They didn’t have a “filibuster proof majority”. I have heard no apology for the total absence of criminal prosecutions for the meltdown. (But NY AG Eric Schneiderman has filed a civil prosecution against J P Morgan for the collateralized mortgage obligations issued by Bear Stearns. Where are you, Eric Holder?)

    So, how does this relate to the US Constitution. I disagree with Eric in viewing the Constitution as framed by “mostly great men who did about the best that could be expected at inventing a new form of democracy while working around the various “third rail” issues of the time (like slavery).” Some great men, yes, but all or nearly were wealthy men who were looking to preserve and advance their interests as a class of wealthy men. Slavery was not a bug but a feature of the Constitution, designed to preserve the plantation economy of the South built on slave labor. As a whole, the Constitution was designed to prevent the majority of people who mwere not property owners from having any power. That struggle, of closing off the “lower classes” from power has been struggle ever since and it goes on today. The Republican Party with its ideas of preventing the nonexistent problem of voter fraud is part of the grand Federalist tradition of preventing the enfranchisement of people and disenfranchising those that have it.

    The problem today is not the Constitution but the monopoly of power held by a single party: the party of wealth and the “1%” under the facade of two political parties that differ in name only. This single party has proved itself incompetent at governing evidenced by the gridlock and unresolved problems we have today. The danger our nation faces as this situation continues to perpetuate itself in this monopoly stranglehold of power is the danger faced by the ancien regime in France in 1789 and Tsarist Russia in 1917 both of which resulted from similar incompetence and inability to share power with other classes and interests in resolving these problems.

  4. Submitted by jody rooney on 10/02/2012 - 09:32 am.


    While Mr. Black’s article is excellent it is Jaime Anderson’s cartoons that put the icing on the cake. These are absolutely wonderful. They look like a good premium for the Minn Post membership drive.

  5. Submitted by Eric Carrig on 10/02/2012 - 09:50 am.

    Blowing past gridlock

    What a great couple of articles! Not only is there gridlock, our leaders leverage it to get what they want, holding America hostage in the process. What if there was a “competition” where people could answer the question “How can we bust gridlock in legislature?” Imagine having “solvers” enter their ideas in a template — much like a business case or legal argument — to describe their solution (but limit the length of answers like Twitter) and then inviting people to vote on the parts of the strategies they like best. Not only would we get cool ideas, we’d could see what people think is most important in terms of breaking up the gridlock politicians are actively promoting. does this for a range of topics and might be worth a look for this issue.

    Come November, this country is going to demand action. The time for words will have past.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/02/2012 - 10:42 am.


    Let’s bear in mind that for most of our history, the federal government has done little or nothing. That’s because the senate has a veto power over legislation and minorities in the body have veto power in what the senate does. It should be noted by the way that obstructionism by a legislative body, was once a problem in the British Parliamentary system as well. Up until the early 20th century the House of Lords could block legislation passed by the House of Commons. They resolved this problem by largely stripping the House of Lords of it’s power. I, for one, think that’s something we should do here. Let’s take away the senate’s legislative power, and make it a purely advisory body. We could follow the British model, and make the senate an honorary body to which members are appointed rather than elected, possibly for life time terms. That would also deal with what is becoming a real problem with the senate now, the declining quality of it’s membership.

  7. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/02/2012 - 11:07 am.


    For a much clearer and to-the-point second installment. While your message, Mr. Black, was that our system is flawed (and it is), particularly in light of the political climate, we can’t realistically change our system. But we can, and should, change the political climate.

    Our system actually works quite well when we work within its bounds. As you indicated, from the get-go the Founders relied on compromise. Something that should be embraced for our country’s well-being.

    We are not Europe. The USA is a different beast, unique in many ways, from the rest of the world. While that’s not a good thing in ALL ways, it is the reason that the country has risen from a handful of colonies containing a mish-mash of (political and religious) exiles and wannabe nobility to a huge landmass of mixed cultures that, arguably, have the greatest power in the entire world.

    I can’t imagine that the political back-and-forth of Europe would be tolerated as apparently complacently here as it is there. Although maybe an argument for repeal of the second amendment (which I really don’t support as a responsible gun owner), in this country, we don’t limit our violence to soccer riots when we’re disappointed in our lot in life. If the state of our country doesn’t rise to the level of that just preceding and during the Civil War, it doesn’t mean that that state is not an impossibility, particularly if we simply embrace the extreme partisanship and give it free reign.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/02/2012 - 01:09 pm.


      Exactly how is the USA unique (a qualitative rather than a quantitative difference)?
      As for the reasons for our economic and military success, and where it might lead, you might start with Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ and ‘Collapse’.
      Nothing mystical about it.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/02/2012 - 02:11 pm.

        Maybe not mystical

        But I never claimed it to be. Simple observation puts the USA in the “unique” category. But, to elaborate, our systems defy pretty much every norm in the world. Look at our healthcare, our government, our tax structure, our embrace of guns, etc., etc. and on down the road. I didn’t claim that the US is better because of this. Simply that this country does not operate on the same frequency as our “closest relatives” (structurally, generally culturally, and financially speaking) in Europe. Like it or not (and regardless of the reality), Americans in general view our country to be “special.” Turning our governmental structure upside down just to “make it work better” is akin to burning the sacred Constitution, the Red White and Blue, and whatever holy book you wish to desecrate on the same bonfire. Sacrilege!!

        I admit that, while I own the book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” I have not yet read it. That being said, the premise of the book is on why Eurasians appear to dominate world resources and power. I’m not sure I see why that would explain the overall cultural and political differences between the USA and Europe. Those differences being large enough to result in strenuous resistance to changes that would make our government operate more like more of Europe’s countries than our dysfunctional setup does now.

  8. Submitted by Jon Austin on 10/02/2012 - 11:23 am.

    A long time coming

    This mess has been a long time coming. Back in the ’80s I worked for a senator who retired in large part because of the growing dysfunction in the Congress and the breakdown in bipartisanship (the other reason was the unending – and always increasing – need to fundraise).

    At one point, he visited England and spent some time with the British parliament and – like Mann and Ornstein – came back with the belief that a parliamentary system of government would be a better form of government for the temperament of the times.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/02/2012 - 12:46 pm.

    Ineffective government

    That government should be effective is not a bipartisan view. Republicans believe that government should be weak, and our current weak constitutional form of government serves them well. The original rationale for a weak federal government, the protection of the institution of slavery, is gone, but many of the economic interests that bolstered the institution of slavery, remain in place, and benefit from a weak central government.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/02/2012 - 01:12 pm.

    I’m inclined to agree

    …with both Jody Rooney and Mr. Kingstad.

    Mr. Churchill, as well, but this is a far different world from the one of 1947.

    What occurred during the Franklin Roosevelt / Truman years were some genuine gains on the part of blue and white-collar working people.

    For at least the past generation, we’ve witnessed unrelenting warfare by “people of money” against those gains, and against the people and institutions that secured them. As has been the case throughout history, differing only in the details, those with money have captured the government, and then proceeded to devise rules of governance that benefit them almost exclusively, and usually at the expense of those of more modest means. The effectiveness of their capture and propaganda can be seen in the willingness of Minnesotans to tolerate the legislature’s failure to finance the state’s public schools, while simultaneously voting to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to help an already-wealthy man build a nearly $1 billion temple for a …football team.

    History will not judge us kindly.

    Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Paul Ryan, et al are merely the latest in a long line of apologists (my polite term for today for members of “the world’s oldest profession”) for people like Mitt Romney. If there’s a sense of entitlement in the society, and I think there is, it’s not at all limited to the elderly. What I see in the behavior of the Romneys and other plutocrats is the same feeling that money equals character, money equals intelligence, money equals “goodness,” that characterized the Social Darwinist Robber Barons of the late 19th century.

    It wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now.

  11. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/02/2012 - 02:27 pm.

    Mr. Tice’s idea that parties control government is also pretty naive. For one thing parties historically represented some pretty divergent issues, and for much of the last century were without ideological definition. And while parties can influence the choices of candidates at the local level, they have far less power than British parties have had historically.

  12. Submitted by Mitch Anderson on 10/02/2012 - 03:24 pm.

    A simple, if politically unfeasible, solution

    I know of one simple solution to our current gridlocked government that would not require its complete overhaul into a parliamentary system. In this case we have to look no further than our friends down under: The Australian government requires mandatory voting in all national elections.

    The system works by requiring all Australian citizens to vote on election day or instead get fined the equivalent of a parking ticket. Before mandatory voting was written into law in 1924, Australians had a voter turnout in the high 50 percents (similar to present day America). Afterward, voter turnout increased to the high 90 percents.

    The upshot is that most voters tend to hold moderate political views, but in reality the strong partisans are the ones who actually turn out to vote in primaries and national elections. All of which pulls politicians into more extreme and partisan positions than is representative in the overall population. So in effect mandatory voting dilutes the influence of hardcore partisan activists and leads to the election of more moderate politicians; aka representatives who don’t filibuster and obstruct every single chance they get.

    I realize how hard it would be to pass something like this in today’s political climate — this would be the healthcare mandate fight x10 — but I believe it could do more to restore order and compromise into our present day government than any other single measure.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/02/2012 - 05:45 pm.

      I’d vote for that

      And I’m not being facetious. I could only hope that voters would take the responsibility seriously, though. In Australia, I don’t think you are necessarily required to actually vote, just show up at the polls and do what you will to the ballot.

  13. Submitted by Wilhelm Achauer on 10/03/2012 - 12:41 am.

    Greater Representation

    Parliaments allow new parties to be created and give voice to smaller but significant voices. The Green party in Germany came about after enviromental crises and concerns about human rights and arms build ups. Their influence made Germany the leading environmental major power in europe. If we had a system like that the Tea Party would not have to invade and take over the Republican party..they could get elected by proportianal representation and would have no choice but to help govern as junior party. The Reform party would have survived and we could have Jesse Ventura, and Ross Perot types with real voices and influence. The voters would have a real choice.

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/04/2012 - 08:00 am.

      New parties

      Depends on the parliamentary system. The British system where races are fought in individual constituencies isn’t particularly friendly to minor parties although they do have a role. Historically, I believe it’s the case, that the Liberal Party and it’s successors, were underrepresented in parliament in terms of their total votes. One of their principal legislative goals, therefore, is the institution of proportional representation, a system that is used in other parliamentary systems. The problem with proportional representation is that it tends to require coalition governments which can be weak in terms of creating policy. Our own system, in some respects, resembles this sort of proportional system, in that despite the existence of parties, to get something passed particularly in the senate, you have to put together coalitions to reach the 60 votes needed to get controversial legislation passed.

      The upshot is that our problems are substantive. And the reality is that procedural solutions really don’t do a very good job at solving substantive problems.

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