I’m impressed by how much trouble the Republicans are having getting anything done. The Senate health agonies are the latest and best example. Two of the three health care ideas that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to offer to the Senate have been voted down.
I thought McConnell, who certainly hasn’t gotten where he is through charm or charisma, was supposed to be the kind of backroom dealer and master vote counter who knew how to push the buttons and turn the cranks to make things happen. The next version, the so-called “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act, which leaves most of it in place, may come up for a vote today.
(In the haste to push something through, the Senate hasn’t allowed for much analysis of the likely impact of “skinny repeal,” which repeals both the individual mandate, the employer mandate, and some of the taxes that paid for the ACA’s expansions of coverage. But a quick CBO study says it might result in 16 million fewer Americans being insured.)
Maybe Senate Republicans will get the skinny version or some other version of health care through today. Maybe McConnell has a secret plan. But at the moment it appears to be a secret he hasn’t told even himself yet. If something passes all the way into law (the House, of course, would have to agree; President Trump will apparently sign anything they pass, even though it contradicts many promises on which he ran) that might undermine some of what I’m about to argue, but the points are still valid.
The parliamentary system
In a classic parliamentary system (where there is no real separation between the executive and legislative branches, where one house of Parliament holds most of the power, and where that house is run by either a majority party or a majority coalition) the idea is that the government is supposed to be able to govern, which means it must be able to pass its bills. If it can’t, a special election may be triggered to allow the electorate to weigh in to produce a new Parliament and allow them to put together a government that can govern. It’s not foolproof, but it’s built for action in a way that ours isn’t.
Ours is built for gridlock. We don’t exactly love gridlock. Even our supposedly anti-government party, the Republicans, don’t love gridlock because they have at all times a list of government programs and taxes they want to reduce or do away with.
But something approaching gridlock has become the new normal over recent years, especially in our system’s most current version. In the new normal each party usually has the means to block the other in at least one of the branches, and the promising areas for real bipartisan compromise have mostly gone away.
But at the moment, we have the relatively rare situation of one party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House. The last time we had that situation, at the beginning of the Obama Administration, Democrats were able to muscle through the Affordable Care Act, although it wasn’t easy or pretty.
Then in that case, the Supreme Court, where a majority of Republican-appointed justices sat, substantially weakened the law (although Republican Chief Justice John Roberts did prevent it from being thrown out entirely, to his undying disgrace in conservative circles).
So far, no big accomplishments
At the moment, we have a Republican president, Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and a majority of Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents. And yet, after six months, the all-red lineup hasn’t done anything big and can’t even repeal the Affordable Care Act, which most Republicans have been promising to do for years.
They may yet get it done (not that I’m rooting for that outcome). But what does their current torment tell us about our system? At the risk of engaging in I-told-you-so-ism, I would like to bring up a piece I put up exactly one year ago today, headlined: “The U.S.: a four- or five-party country jammed into a two-party system.”
I’m not claiming a brilliant or original analysis. But I do think the headline was a good first step toward explaining what’s going on. The Democrats can be divided into two main factions. There’s a far left (by American standards) that borders on what are called social democrats in other systems. The Bernie Sanders candidacy increased the prominence of this group and the number of Democrats who are willing to openly call for a single-payer health-care system has increased markedly. (Yes, I know, Sanders is not a Democrat, but support for his ideas grows within the Democratic Party.)
The other party within the Democratic Party consists of moderate liberals reasonably well personified by Hillary Clinton, but a group that stretches from Hillaryism to the most conservative Democrats, like Minnesota’s Collin Peterson or West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.
The Republicans can be divided into three parties. There are moderates like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who probably agrees with Joe Manchin on more things than she does with her party’s right wing. There’s the right-wing, perhaps personified by some combination of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who are so oriented toward less government that they are really almost Libertarians (Rand Paul was raised as a Libertarian) but who prefer to be nominal Republicans because minor parties don’t win many U.S. elections.
The incoherent fifth party
The fifth party, the newly created Party of Trump, is hard to describe coherently because it is incoherent. At the moment, it is part cult of Trump’s personality, and part a vessel for expressing the anger and frustration of the white working class without many programs to help their non-rich constituents.
If I’m right about this, it’s easier to see why the three-headed, three-hearted Republican Party can’t agree on a health care bill, at least in the Senate. Until recent developments, I assumed that something that could be called “repeal and replace” would get enough votes to pass. Now we don’t know. I did not see this coming, but it makes a certain sense if you think of the Repubs as a coalition of three parties that has decided to form a temporary partnership for the purpose of governing, a la the parliamentary version.
In the European version of parliamentary-ism, a failure to come together on such a major vote might trigger new elections. We have no such mechanism. The next election is 18 months away; the presidency won’t be part of it. And not much governing may occur in the meantime.