StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

The Real Advantage of a Parliamentary System

26 Aug 2011
Posted by Andrew Samwick

In a column last week, Fareed Zakaria asked, "Does America Need a Prime Minister?"  It is a question that often comes up when political gridlock makes it appear that we cannot respond to a crisis.  My answer is no.  Answer yes if you would have rather had the country governed with the Speaker of the House as the chief executive rather than the President over all of the last two decades.  Prime Minister Gingrich.  Prime Minister Pelosi.  Answer yes if you would like to have more and possibly more influential Tea Party movements legitimized as parties of their own, or if you would like Bernie Sanders (Socialist-VT) to have more company serving in elected office on Capitol Hill.

An advantage of the parliamentary system that I do wish we could find a way to replicate in our non-parliamentary system is the requirement that a party cannot obtain control of the national executive branch without demonstrating its appeal in the national legislative branch.  This is no guarantee of good government, but I think it would improve our system, at least based on the experience of recent decades.  It is a feature of our system that we tend to elect governors, rather than senators, to the Presidency.  We haven't elected a senator who wasn't facing another senator since JFK.  So every 4-8 years, the party that does not control the Presidency has a shot at gaining the Presidency -- and thus "half" of the power in the Washington -- with a candidate who has had nothing to do with Washington and its current predicament.  Look at the way all governors, from Carter to Reagan to Clinton to Bush, have run as "outsiders."

Stated differently, in our system, there may be insufficient reward to a political party for good behavior in the legislature, and not nearly enough punishment to a political party for bad behavior in the legislature.  Since control of the legislature is the ultimate electoral prize in a parliamentary system, that is a problem those systems don't have to quite the same degree as we do.

Yes, We Could be Belgium---or Italy

Yes, we could be Belgium. That country's government, when it has one, operates under a Parliamentary system. They have not been able to form a government since the last one resigned April 26, 2010. Or, we could be Italy.....

A big assumption Andrews makes here is that "good behavior" and "bad behavior" correspond to one's popularity. In fact, "good behavior" often entails making unpopular choices.


Make that "Professor Andrew Samwick" in the prior post, please.

Parliamentary and Presidential systems

Generally speaking, presidential systems have been far less stable than parliamentary ones. Lots of countries have attempted to copy the US system but in general they have been very subject to coups and other governmental crises. The US is about the only stable long-term presidential system around. The Founding Fathers designed our system partly to restrain political parties and political polarization, but maybe they ended up designing a system that *needed* loose party affiliation instead of creating it.

The large size and comparative inhomogeneity of the US has shielded us from polarization, but modern mass culture and large-scale internal migration has made the different parts much more like each other and may have put us into the same situation that drove most long-term democracies to parliamentary systems. I am particularly concerned with the extreme polarization of Senate confirmations by the Republicans since 2008. The Democrats of 2002-2008 filibustered a few dozen judges, but the Republicans since have filibustered hundreds of nominees. If we get a situation with a new president and and Senate controlled by the opposite party (as opposed to 59-41 in 2009) the President might be unable to nominate anybody and we would have a serious governmental crisis.

polarization in a divided government

Answer yes if you would have rather had the country governed with the Speaker of the House as the chief executive rather than the President over all of the last two decades. Prime Minister Gingrich. Prime Minister Pelosi.

Respectfully, I think this stacks the deck a bit. If the parties knew their leaders in Congress were going to be the head of state, they would choose people with different skills to be their leaders in Congress. So, Prime Minister Kasich and Prime Minister Schakowsky, or something.

I'm actually a little bit worried about our current system destroying America.

Juan Linz observed, in 1990, that “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States ... [a]side from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government—but Chilean democracy broke down in the 1970s.”

The problem is, when the president & the legislature are elected separately, both can claim democratic legitimacy.

When the parties are polarized, as happened with the breakdown of the center in Chile in the 1960s, governance can become impossible, and politics can become personal.

Linz theorized that the "uniquely diffuse character of American political parties" prevented that polarization in the US. But 20 years later, the parties are ideologically sorted out.

What's more, the Republican Party has no substantive policy commitments whatsoever. Fresh from instituting Medicare Part D, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Raich v. Gonzalez, No Child Left Behind, the Bush fiscal policies, warrantless wiretapping and the indefinite detention without trial or charge of American citizens, the Republican Party is claiming to be the party of small-government fiscal conservatism. This as we're experiencing the worst economic crisis in generations, in a context that conventional economics would suggest increasing government spending. Almost nothing the GOP has done in the past decade makes any kind of sense from any ideological or philosophical standpoint. It's just about having a side to cheer for, and, as Bruce Bartlett put it, "their ambition to retake power so that they can reward their lobbyist friends with more give-aways from the public purse."

So, it's not just polarization, it's polarization in a world where policy doesn't matter. Pres. Obama can offer a thousand Grand Bargains, but the GOP can't agree to anything, because the purpose of their existence is to oppose the president regardless of the context.

In all likelihood, within a few years the economy will pick back up and the Republicans will return to being a more conventional political party, interested in policies rather than pure identity politics. But we're in a bad spot, and we have a very unusual system in world history.

(I wrote a little bit about Linz, Chile, and the comparison to the US here).

Bigger problem is gerrymandered districts

You need to get down to the local level. All politics is local.

Why do we have extremists in our legislature (specifically in the House of Reps)? Gerrymandering.
Look at MN 6th, Maryland 8th, etc., etc.

I live in Bachmann's district, drawn to make it a nightmare to campaign (drive all over creation), and solidly Republican. The lines are crazy, but it accomplished the goal of being R come hell or high water -- even to the point of easily electing a delusional paranoid Republican.

Bernanke pointed out what it leads to in his address today:

"The country would be well served by a better process for making fiscal decisions. The negotiations that took place over the summer disrupted financial markets and probably the economy as well, and similar events in the future could, over time, seriously jeopardize the willingness of investors around the world to hold U.S. financial assets or to make direct investments in job-creating U.S. businesses."

We can start to put sane people in office when we have sane, balanced districting.

You should read the relevant poli-sci lit on this...

This is wrong, and its wrong in a very important way: Prime Minister Gingrich, Prime Minister Pelosi? No, this is wrong. The choice of a party's leadership is an endogenous choice variable for the party. Presumably (and historically within parliamentary systems) the party leader is always someone that can be sold to the center of the electorate: otherwise the party would lose the election!

On another level, an important point is; so what? In a parliamentary system, the bipartisanship of alternation helps take care of legislative overreach. When the parties swap control the "bad" parts of the other party's agenda can be repealed. Although generally you tend to see parties in these systems governing from the center - the median and/or mean voter theorems bind regardless of the legislative/executive system.

Finally, you talk about there being no tea party party or socialist party in the legislature as if this was a good feature of our system. It is not. What about all the people who are effectively disenfranchised by the lack of political choice? A system where these smaller parties are viable and the larger parties need to form coalitions including these parties would make everyone better off: at least if you believe that representation in the legislature is better for people.

Frankly, I have a hard time thinking up a real (as opposed to imagined) advantage to a presidential system: which is perhaps why presidential systems tend not to last very long, with the US as a notable exception. I suppose bipartisanship of alternation has its disadvantages compared to some idealized everyone-holds-hands-and-is-happy (unobtainable) sort of bipartisanship: but that's sort of my point...

"with notably great

"with notably great exceptions presidential systems are stable forms of government"

You would also need to get

You would also need to get rid of the single vote electoral system. Some sort of proportional representation system of voting in multi seat districts would reduce the degree of polarisation.

Better Red the Rep

if you would like Bernie Sanders (Socialist-VT) to have more company serving in elected office on Capitol Hill.

Sneer all you want, but the fact is Republicans and their conservative policies made the mess were in, not the Independent from Vermont.

I agree. Remark about Bernie uncalled-for

Bernie Sanders is a credit to the Senate (though it's an interesting world in which Bruce Bartlett seems to share Bernie's perspective on the Republican leadership).

The grass is always greener

I just read two histories of the continuing debacle that was the French government during the 1930s leading up to the utter disaster of 1940.

"Our system has some problems, so a parliamentary system would be better..."

No, really, there's no logic in a presumption like that *at all*.

"Answer yes if you would have

"Answer yes if you would have rather had the country governed with the Speaker of the House as the chief executive rather than the President over all of the last two decades. Prime Minister Gingrich. Prime Minister Pelosi."

It's a false assumption that people who become speakers would have become prime minister. In a parliamentary system, the candidates for prime minister are highlighted during the election campaign and vetted as such. A party would carefully choose their candidate or face the wrath of the average voter.

"Answer yes if you would like to have more and possibly more influential Tea Party movements legitimized as parties of their own, or if you would like Bernie Sanders (Socialist-VT) to have more company serving in elected office on Capitol Hill."

As a matter of fact, I would like those voices be heard more clearly instead of subsuming them all under the two major partys and their big game against each other. Appearance of such groups has, however, less to do with a parliamentary system of government than with the election system of the legislatures, with a plurality vote guaranteeing two major parties and proportional election the existence of splinter groups, and with Ranked Choice Voting and minimum pervcentage requirements somewhere in the middle.

I am not opposed to read more from Andrew Samwick, but I would wish he would try to infomr himself more, before writing about such a well-researched subject.

"Answer yes if you would like

"Answer yes if you would like to have more and possibly more influential Tea Party movements legitimized as parties of their own,"

It would force the Tea Parties to have coherent, well, at least perceptibly more coherent, policy platforms, so perhaps not entirely a bad thing. And they would, as they really should, split off completely from the Republicans, which would weaken the GOP. So that would be a benefit.

" or if you would like Bernie Sanders (Socialist-VT) to have more company serving in elected office on Capitol Hill."

Sure, why not? His voting record is not more crazy than any of his colleagues.

There's no reason, constitutionally, for there not to be more diversity in Congress. The main reason we don't is that the Republicans and Democrats have used control of election rules and district jerrymandering to protect their own interests and make it more difficult for third-party and independent challengers.

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