Second-guessing shutdown: Would a parliamentary system have avoided the crisis?

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson
In a classic, let’s say British-styled system, you wouldn’t get a situation in which the leader of the executive branch is at loggerheads with the party that controlled the legislative branch.

Deep question: What would the great shutdown crisis of 2013 look like if the United States had a parliamentary system instead of the presidential system created in our Constitution?

Simple-minded answer: It wouldn’t have occurred. In a typical parliamentary system, there is either just one house of parliament or (more commonly) one house has most of the power. So you wouldn’t get a standoff in which the two houses couldn’t agree on a budget because they were controlled by different parties.

And in a classic, let’s say British-styled system, you wouldn’t get a situation in which the leader of the executive branch (in our case, the president) is at loggerheads with the party that controlled the legislative branch. In a parliamentary system the chief executive (prime minister) is the leader of the majority party in the legislative branch (or the prime minister leads a coalition of parties that constitutes the majority in the powerful house of the parliament).

In the case of a coalition made up of two or more parties, the parties generally would have entered the coalition based on a negotiation over issues on which the coalition partners would act as a united front. There is always the possibility that the coalition might break up over an issue that arose after the day they agreed to form a coalition. In that case, in a parliamentary system, there are two things that typically occur, either of which would (theoretically) prevent a long-standoff/gridlock/meltdown such as the United States has just endured.

Thing one: A new negotiation might result in a new majority coalition, possibly with a somewhat different lineup of partners.

Thing two: The crisis would lead to a “snap election.” That’s an election called when no election was previously scheduled. It allows the voters to settle the matter, resulting in a new partisan lineup. And these elections are called and then held in a matter of weeks, not the year-long campaigns that ours have become with primaries and conventions and general elections.

Fresh mandate

If everything works according to plan, a party emerging from that election with a fresh mandate should be able to pass its budget and govern until the next regularly scheduled election or the next snap election. (P.S.: Ofttimes, the snap elections are called not because of a policy standoff, but because the party in power likes its chances of winning in that political moment, possibly returning to control with a fresh mandate and a bigger majority.)

In case this little simple-minded explanation of how some other democracies do it has you wishing that the United States had a parliamentary system (especially in the current moment when the weaknesses of our system have been on such agonizing/annoying/embarrassing full display), you should have the conversation I had recently with U of M political scientist Kathryn Sikkink.

Sensing (correctly — and understandably under the current circumstances) that I was yearning for the advantages of a parliamentary system, she didn’t take long to caution me against the danger, in such a moment, of “romanticizing” other systems.

It took only another moment for her to mention the case of the parliamentary meltdown in Belgium in 2010-2011 in which an election was called to form a new government, which led to a big muddle with many parties and different possible combinations to form a majority coalition. After the 2010 Belgian elections, it ended up taking a record 353 days to form a coalition that could command majority support.

Yikes. If stability and an ability to govern is one of the big things you want out of a political system (it is for me), that was not exactly an advertisement for the advantage of a parliamentary system. And, although it did set a record, it is not an isolated example.

Recently, we had the case of Greece, the country that, in some sense, invented Western democracy. Facing a government and financial crisis far more serious than our current one last year, Greece held elections to form a new government and then had to hold another national election a month later because the first round produced nothing useable.

Point taken

Professor Alfred Montero, chairman of Carleton College’s political science department, has focused his scholarship on comparative democracy. He kindly led me on a longer tour of the contrasts between the two basic models and some special features that make the U.S. system unusual.

If you are willing to seize this moment to think a little deeper about the structural design of democratic governments, here are a few key points that Montero made:

The “presidential system,” which is what scholars call the U.S. system, predominates mostly in the Americas. The parliamentary system predominates in Europe.

Among the presidential systems, ours is characterized by one of the weakest presidencies, Montero said. For example, in many of the other presidential systems, the budget process starts with the president. In ours, at least as the Framers designed it, the budget process is supposed to start in the U.S. House and must pass both the House and Senate before the president has a structural role in budgeting. And even then his choices are only to sign or veto the bills.

(Of course, one should note that the system of creating and adopting a budget has not been working anywhere near the way the Framers envisioned, nor even the modern budget process designed by Congress in 1974.)

Although it has little to do with the current mess, Montero also said that our system, as evolved, also has one of the most powerful and autonomous supreme courts of any in the world. Although its role is “reactive” — meaning it can only deal with the cases that come before it — our Supreme Court’s word is virtually final on the matters that come to it, and many of those matters are highly important.

Equal houses

One of the unusual features of our system — and this one is right where the action is this week — is what Montero calls by the snappy nickname “symmetrical bicameralism.” Many of the world’s legislative branches have two houses. But in most cases, one of the houses has most of the power. The British House of Lords or the Canadian Senate are examples of second houses that occasionally come into play, but have little power compared to the House of Commons.

But in our system, both houses are very powerful, roughly equal (although each house has a special power or two that the other one lacks). At the very least, a majority of either house can stop anything if a majority votes against it. (And that’s before we even get into extra-constitutional features like the filibuster in the Senate or the “Hastert Rule” in the House, which enable minorities to also block action.)

‘Built for no’

“Our system was set up for the ‘no,’ not for the ‘yes,’” Montero said. “It was set up to impede legislation. When you need to get things passed, you need large majorities” (or you need several different majorities, assembled from officials elected on different cycles).

That’s somewhat more respectful than the way I’ve been saying it, which is that our system was built for gridlock. But in historical perspective, it’s important to recall that the constitutional system as drafted in 1787 was a replacement for the very weak Article of Confederation government. The many “checks and balances” that were built in were necessary in the post-King George climate of 1787 to assure the newly independent nation that the newly designed government would not run too wild.

The Framers could not possibly have envisioned a federal government so active in our day-to-day lives or the management of the economy. The idea of all these deadlines — for example, the deadline for extending appropriations or else the government shuts down, the deadline for raising the debt ceiling or the U.S. creditworthiness is jeopardized — was not on the Framers’ horizon. The idea that a large portion of the population would depend on federal funds to survive (let’s say Social Security recipients, for example) was beyond their imaginations.

Weak party leadership

From the kind of international comparative standpoint that Montero brings, the U.S. system is also characterized by weak parties. Or perhaps one should say weak party leaderships, which obviously is a huge factor in the current embarrassment.

The key to this form of weakness, as Montero described it, is the question of how people get elected. “In the U.S. political system, the central party leadership doesn’t control who gets on the ballot,” Montero said. “In Britain and Canada, if they don’t want you on the ballot, you’re not on the ballot.”

Perhaps you can see how big an incentive this creates for party loyalty, by backbenchers, to the party establishment.

“This is one of the keys to what makes the Tea Party group so powerful,” Montero said. “They are so ideologically coherent. Their power base is so local. And the national party doesn’t control whether they appear on the ballot.”

During the rise of the Tea Party, we have seen many instances in which a loyal Republican incumbent, who had the support of the party leadership, lost a primary by an insurgent challenger from the right. The argument against the incumbent was that he or she was too moderate. In many of the parliamentary systems, there is no such thing as a primary. If a backbencher wants to be on the ballot for the next election, he needs to stay fairly loyal to the party leadership.

Back in the United States, unless every pundit in the country is wrong, there are plenty of ordinary ol’ Chamber of Commerce-oriented Republican incumbents who are going along with a lot extreme right-wing ideas because they don’t want to create an opening for a primary challenge from their right.

Likewise, unless all the same analysts are wrong, the fear among House Republicans of being labeled a moderate or (evil organ chord here) a compromiser had a large role in creating the conditions for the shutdown/debt ceiling mess.

Norms and culture vs. structure

As regular Black Ink readers know, I believe that the swamp our government has inhabited recently is a combination of problems deeply rooted in the structure of our system, and changes in the norms of our always-evolving political culture.

To put it briefly, if political leaders of good faith are willing to work out their ideological differences, our system works fairly well, and has done so for most of our history, with some fairly blatant exceptions. Not perfect, but a lot of progress in positive directions.

But when the spirit of compromise disappears — as I would say it has among the extreme right of the Republican Party — and the partisan/ideological difference bleed into an atmosphere resembling total war, the players start looking for leverage and power beyond what they have gained at the ballot box. And they find it embedded in both the basic, permanent structure of our constitutional system, and in some of the more recent rules that have been added to the basic structure. Overusing the filibuster is an example. And most recently, shutting down the government and threatening not to raise the debt ceiling to gain leverage to defund the Affordable Care Act.  

When I ran this general line of analysis past Montero, he didn’t exactly dispute that something has changed, for example, in the U.S. Norms of Compromise Department over recent years, nor that this change helped cause the recent unpleasantness between Red and Blue.

But Montero seems to believe that structure matters most. He didn’t express a clear personal preference between the two main systems in use in the democratic world today, presidential and parliamentary. But he did mention that after World War II, comparative democracy scholars studied the failure of a large number of European democracies in 1920s and ‘30s, and they concluded that “the vast majority of systems that collapsed from democracy to totalitarianism were parliamentary systems.”

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/21/2013 - 06:03 am.

    The Brits

    I am most familiar with the British parliamentary system, being a fan of Question Time on C-Span, which is on Sunday nights at 8 during the session. Something to note is that our system of government was created, the British system of government evolved. One of the things that means is that the British system has an easier time responding to the need for change. The most important example of that was the issue of slavery. Britain was able to ban slavery in the Empire though legislative action. No constitutional crisis happened nor did it occur. In America on the other hand, the rigid system of government created the convention, one designed to make it much easier to say “no” than “yes”, as the article notes, proved unable proved incapable of ridding ourselves of the peculiar institution, resulting in a collapse of the constitutional system and the Civil War.

    One thing about the British system is that it’s politics without a safety net. Winners of elections, actually get to set policy. Parliamentary minorities are little more than so many potted plantts. This both raises the stakes in elections, and has the potential for sharp policy reversals, as when power shifts from one party to the other. But I would also point out that in the British system, the party leaders have a lot of power within the party, which tends to make it less beholden to extremist members, or when they are more beholden to those members, makes the party much less likely to win elections and take national power.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/21/2013 - 07:35 am.

    Parliamentary v. RCV

    One of the key things to understand about the British parliamentary system that distinguishes if from other such systems is that elections are decided by a first past the finish line standard, not proportional representation as is the case with many other countries. What this has meant in practice in Britain is that large minority parties, specifically the LibDems are under represented in Pariliament relative to the popular vote they command in the election. Although Britain has a coalition government now, such governments are rare in British history. With the exception of the national unity governments of WW II, I think you have to go back to the 1920’s to find that the plurality party needed a coalition to govern. This facet of British governance is not uncontroversial. Naturally, the lib dems are strongly in favor of proportional representation which would generally give them more seats in Parliament. The merits of that position aside, I would have to argue that the current system which usually doesn’t require coalitions has led to stable governments which may or may not be a good thing.

    Compare the Brit system with RCV. RCV is a complicated system which seems to have contradictory goals; it’s intended to contribute to decisive majoritarian results, while enhancing the role of minority parties, two things that work against each other. One goal RCV is intended to achieve is that votes are not wasted, that you can vote both your heart and head. Note how under a parliamentary system with proportional representation, votes are not wasted in a different way. Small parties who reach a certain threshold will be represented in their parliaments, so non majoritarian voices are more easily heard.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/21/2013 - 09:26 am.

    Well, maybe

    A classic counter example would be the role of the Shas party in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament).
    Shas is an extreme religious fringe party (analogous to the Tea Party) but often plays the role of kingmaker. When the two main parties command relatively equal numbers in the Knesset, Shas can determine which coalition to join, and thus which party is in control. In return for this, it demands commitments to its agenda. Essentially, it is up for bids.
    Imagine the TP telling the Democrats and Republicans that it would swing its block of voters to whichever party would agree to back its agenda.
    Things could be worse!

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/21/2013 - 10:10 am.

      Israel has proportional representation which for them translates into a collection of small parties with significant representation in the Knesset. There are lots of small parties in Britain as well, some of whom even manage to win an election, but on the whole they don’t have much impact. One party’s successful candidates, Sinn Fein, don’t even take their seats in Parliament.

      It’s easy to oversimplify and overlook some of the forces at work here. Procedural solutions are rarely complete answers to substantive problems. The British Parliamentary system works the way it does, because it has fairly strong party discipline. The coalition currently in place seems remarkably stable. But neither has to be the case. If a majority becomes divided it can have much the same effect as divided government in the United States. Presumably, if that happens the government will fall. But off hand I can’t recall the last time a British government has lost support in Parliament, at least in a way requiring early elections.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/21/2013 - 03:12 pm.

        Some of what’s happening here

        also seems relatively unprecedented — certainly a default would be.
        What you’re saying could be interpreted as ‘the Brits have been lucky so far’.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/21/2013 - 10:15 am.

    Tea party suicide

    No control? Not really. The Republicans brought the TP and libertarians in because they thought they’d be useful idiots, nothing exemplifies that like McCain’s selection of running mates. They brought this on themselves. These candidates actually call themselves something other than republicans, Tea Party, Libertarian etc. I think a party could control the ballot if it wanted to by requiring a certain adherence to a party platform.

    The problem the Republicans have is that the party itself has become more and more reactionary over the decades, and has been appealing to ever more reactionary constituents. Now those reactionaries have acquired enough power to block any efforts to exclude them. Ironically, had McCain appealed to moderates instead of reactionaries he might have won the election and stomped the Tea Party thus preserving the republican party. As it is, McCain appears to have deployed the nail gun that going to bury the republican party. I bet you five bucks that John McCain rues the day he made that call to Sarah Palin like no other decision he’s ever made in his life.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/21/2013 - 01:57 pm.

    Ted Cruz

    received an 8-minute standing ovation when he returned home to Texas after the shutdown battle.

    “After two months in Washington, it’s great to be back in America,” Cruz joked in speaking to a crowd of about 750 people in a packed downtown San Antonio hotel ballroom.

    The next time John McCain gets a standing ovation it’ll be when he announces his retirement.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/21/2013 - 05:25 pm.


      has the location of the real America backwards.
      He’s living in an oil plutocracy.

      Of course, the fact that only 750 Texans support him is highly encouraging (but not for him).

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/21/2013 - 05:35 pm.

      Proves nothing

      Michelle Bachmann could probably get a Standing-O in certain neighborhoods in the 6th District. That speaks more to attributes of those offering the Standing-O than to the attributes of the one receiving it.

    • Submitted by Diane Nelson on 10/21/2013 - 08:42 pm.


      applaud executions. And look what happened to those guys.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/22/2013 - 09:39 am.

      If he were really popular

      he’d have filled a football stadium.
      How many in that hotel ballroom wandered in by mistake while looking for a wedding?

  6. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 10/21/2013 - 06:08 pm.

    The Tea Party=Republican Party

    The goals, policies, ideology, and objectives of the Tea Party and the establishment Republican party are generally the same. The only main difference is in the strategy and tactics. Establishment Republicans believe you have to win elections and control a majority to enact policy goals. The TP thinks it can be done without winning elections or gaining a majority.

    Surveys by Democracy Corp show that while Ted Cruz is on the “fringe” of the national electorate, he is firmly in the “middle” of where the Republican party stands.

  7. Submitted by jason myron on 10/21/2013 - 06:47 pm.

    So what?

    We’re supposed to be impressed that a room full of people who hate their government so much that they speak of secession, applaud the latest grifter masquerading as GOP messiah? Please run Ted Cruz in 2016…I’m begging you.

  8. Submitted by Tom Lynch on 10/21/2013 - 10:51 pm.

    ——-“After two months in Washington, it’s great to be back in America,” Cruz joked in speaking to a crowd of about 750 people in a packed downtown San Antonio hotel ballroom——–

    Stay there!

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/22/2013 - 12:42 pm.


    Something I really appreciate about the British system of government is that since it has no constitution, it has no founding fathers to whom omniscience is imputed. It would never occur to the British political mind to say we should do something today because of something some British politician had written in 1787.

  10. Submitted by jason myron on 10/22/2013 - 07:49 pm.

    Well said, Mr. Foster!

    Nothing chafes my wheat more than listening to some Tea Party clown droning on about what the “Founders intended”, as if they have any insight to what men who’ve been dead for two hundred years would possibly think about a modern United States, filled with 300 million people, intertwined in a global economy.

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