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What will it take for the Democrats to actually govern?

Fintan O’Toole’s advice — to give up on reconciliation with the Republicans — gets the title “To Hell With Unity.”

U.S. Capitol Building
U.S. Capitol Building
REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Writing for the New York Review of Books, the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole, whose eloquence has caught my attention previously, explores the dilemma of congressional Democrats, with their barest of bare and not-completely-united majority, trying to figure out how to govern, and whether there is any way to form a functional coalition with reasonable, moderate Republicans to get stuff done that is worth doing before the next election.

You can’t get the full piece (“To Hell With Unity”) without a subscription. But the first few paragraphs include this wry, realistic assessment of the luck Democrats have had appealing for Republican help or compromise: 

“There surely comes a time when repeated declarations of unrequited love look less like fidelity and more like madness, a time to see the bonds of affection tying party to party as bonds in the other sense, chains that shackle the democratic majority to the will of a fiercely intractable minority.”

This link will get you the opening of the piece, including the paragraph above. To get more, you’ll need to subscribe. But I thought that paragraph alone was worth passing along as an eloquent summary of where congressional bipartisanship stands at the moment.

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A bit of an outlier

The whole topic reminds us that the U.S. system of politics and government is a bit of an outlier compared to democracies around the world. 

The more common system is some form of parliamentarianism, in which the leader of the executive branch is chosen by a majority in the “leading” house of Parliament. He or she is either the leader of a party that controls a majority of the House of Commons, or is chosen by a coalition of parties that make up a majority. 

One of the basic ideas is to have a government that can govern, which means pass laws. And when it can’t govern (pass laws), that triggers a new election, to allow the electorate to weigh in, leading to the formation of a new governing party or coalition that can govern.

The U.S. system not only has no such mechanism, but requires a majority of both houses of the legislative branch to agree on a bill, and then for the executive to sign it and then be in charge of administering it. It’s sort of a recipe for gridlock. 

Lack of Democratic unity

In the United States, we very often don’t have the House, the Senate and the White House controlled by a single party. At the moment, we do have a majority of the same party in control of both legislative Houses and the executive branch. But the least enthusiastic members of the majority (Sen. Joe Manchin, for example, who is perhaps the least liberal member of the Democratic coalition, which governs by a one-vote-majority in the Senate) can scuttle the whole deal.

I’m sure there are arguments, pro and con, for the various systems. But if you want a government that can govern, our system is one of the worst.