Checks and paralysis

Americans tend to see the typical European parliamentary system as fragmented and fragile. We feel smug when we see coalitions fall apart after a few months or witness the tortured negotiations about putting one together in the first place. Twenty political parties? Really?

But, I’m starting to think they are on to something. For us to get something done, we need House, Senate, and President to agree … And the Senate probably needs 60 votes out of 100. The result is paralysis, the impossibility of passing budgets or doing anything substantive for years at a time. For better or worse, this is how the Founders designed things. We call it “checks and balances”. We call it normal.

In a parliamentary system, when politicians cannot agree on an agenda, they have new coalition negotiations. The sytem highlights the paralysis and then goes into overdrive until a majority agrees on the next steps. The country waits with baited breath to see what the new coalition will be and the new agenda. Here, it’s more like “don’t hold your breath”.

Maybe there is something to be said to giving the winners of the most recent election free rein to implement their policies? At the next election, you vote them out if you don’t like the results. No excuses about “we were going to do all these great things but those other guys wouldn’t let us.”


2 thoughts on “Checks and paralysis

  1. conceptualhistorian

    Great post – really enjoyed reading this. It was always my understanding that the ‘checks and balances’ set in place by the US Founding Fathers were designed to prevent the sort of autocratic control found in most European states at the time (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on this). I also reckon it’s linked to what we over here sometimes see as the American phobia – big government. As to coalitions, they too can be a block on getting things done – largely because the main coalition partner has to keep the others sweet and the price of doing that is often the delay or fudging of legislation your grassroots electorate voted you in to pass. Here in the UK we’ve got our first coalition government for about sixty years and the cracks in it seem to be getting wider month by month.
    Generally though the UK Parliamentary system works – sort of. Each party publishes its manifesto, which allows those who can be bothered to read through their proposals. Winning the election gives a clear electoral mandate to put those policies into action and if you didn’t vote then you’ve no right to complain.
    However, if you look below the surface froth, you see that just having a policy in your manifesto and winning the election is no guarantee that it will become law. British politics is rife with cases of potentially unpopular legislation being allowed to sink in a mire of parliamentary working parties and focus group consultations. Then it tends to get left until after the next election when hey, it could well be someone elses problem….

    1. myantitweet Post author

      Thanks for the comments. I was hoping someone from Europe would chime in so we didn’t suffer from the “grass is greener” over there syndrome. You’re right that checks and balances are probably partly to prevent government from being too big. Probably the ability of smaller parties to hold the coalition hostage is another weakness. I think Israel is a good example right now.

      A problem I alluded to was that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to get many/most things done. This is not a constitutional requirement. It’s a procedural rule in the Senate that says you need 60 (out of 100) votes to overcome a filibuster. The fact that our constitution requires 3 approvals (House, Senate, President) rather than 1-2 in a typical parliamentary system means that the deck is already stacked against us. When we implement a procedural rule saying you need a supermajority in one of those, ugh.


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